Rules for choosing a Presidential nominee

Former senators almost never get to live here

As we enter election season, people wonder who the right candidate for the Democrats (or never-Trumpers) to stand against Trump is.

There are many factors, but let me start with some generic factors for the Democrats at any time.

  1. The candidate should not have been a member of congress, like a Senator or House rep. Ideally they would be a sitting or former governor, if possible from a large red state or Rustbelt swing state, and able to deliver that state.
  2. If not a governor, other possible backgrounds include a successful business or top-brass military career, or a cabinet post running a major department.
  3. They must be simultaneously liberal enough to energize high turnout among the left, and centrist enough to attract voters on the center, and not overly frighten voters on the right. Voters must feel the candidate can understand and respect them.
  4. Charisma is also key to both energizing the base and attracting the center.

In the special case of 2020, against Trump, if the candidate comes from business, their record there must be inarguably superior to Trump's.

Racism and sexism will play a role in the election if it is close. Normally, principles should be defended, and it is long past time when race, sex, religion or other factors should play a role in selecting the candidate. Counter to that, there is an argument that a 2nd Trump term would be so risky to the rights of minorities that it would be an error to nominate somebody who would lose a significant block of voters due to prejudices on principle. For example, if a female candidate would lose 3% of voters due to misogyny, and thus loses the race, that this is a much greater risk to women's rights than not selecting such a candidate would be. Neither answer is pleasant, of course.

Obama creates a counter-example to that. Obama's unprecedented and historic run as a half-African clearly energized many voters, and the extra turnout more than countered any votes lost to racism. Sadly, the safe choice is the standard white, Christian male that the parties almost always nominate, but alternatives have merit.

Casting aside another principle, an entertainment celebrity could be a viable choice. That's a terrible way to elect leaders, and it's how Trump came to power. It may make sense to "fight fire with fire" and temporarily give up that principle. Media celebrities use their instant name recognition and likeability to gain an advantage over more practical experience, and it works.

What experience is best for being President?

Almost all candidates are politicians, typically Senators, a few House members and Governors. You used to get the occasional General and a few people from business backgrounds, including of course Donald Trump. Vice Presidents often run as well.

Turns out that while Senators are really common, they don't do very well. In fact, a Senator almost never wins, except against other Senators. In the 20th century, the only Senator to win against a non-congressman was JFK over Nixon (who had been both VP and Senator) by a very small margin. Warren Harding was a Senator (and Lt. Governor) but his opponent was only a congressman. So essentially, running a Senator or congressman against almost anything else never works. It is actually surprising that it happens so often. (Also, as we know, that while Nixon lost to JFK, he beat Senator Humphrey easily the next time.)

But what is the experience a President needs? My outsider's impression is that the job involves:

  • Managing a very large organization, mostly through delegation
  • Ability to recruit top people, and work with them
  • Solid understanding of both domestic and international political reality
  • Ability to negotiate laws with congress
  • Charismatic ability to lead the people
  • Strength and ability to make strong but wise decisions on big matters
  • Ability to perform these tasks under extreme scrutiny, subject to constant public criticism and ridicule
  • Ability to command respect at all levels

Of these, only the awareness of domestic political reality and the making of laws are learned in congressional roles.

In fact, history shows that members of congress do poorly in Presidential elections. They generally lose to people who have something better on the resume, or never were in congress. It is speculated that this is because members have a voting record which can be used against them. Everybody remembers John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it."

I made a chart (took some research) of all the elections going back to 1900, listing the candidate's major claim to fame or recent top resume credit.

Year Loser Winner
1900 Congressman President
1904 Chief, NY Court of Appeals President (VP)
1908 Congressman Sec. War, Governor (Cuba, Philippines)
1912 President Governor NJ
1916 Governor NY, SCOTUS President
1920 Governor OH Senator, Lt. Governor OH Landslide
1924 Solicitor General President (VP), Governor MA
1928 Governor NY Sec of Commerce
1932 President Governor NY. Roosevelt Family
1936 Governor KS President
1940 Businessman President
1944 District Attny President
1948 Governor NY President (VP)
1952 Governor IL General
1956 Governor IL President
1960 VP, Senator, Congressman Senator, Kennedy Family Close
1964 Senator President (VP)
1968 Incumbent VP Former VP
1972 Senator President
1976 President (VP-unelected) Governor GA
1980 President Governor CA, Actor
1984 Former VP President
1988 Governor MA Incumbent VP
1992 President Governor AR
1996 Senator President
2000 Incumbent VP Governor TX. Bush Family Close
2004 Senator President
2008 Senator Senator, pioneer
2012 Governor MA President
2016 Senator, Sec. Of State, Clinton Family Businessman, TV Personality Close

We can see that only twice has a member of congress defeated a non-member, while they have lost 7 times. In 2008 it was Senator vs. Senator.

We have to go back to 1960 to see Senator Kennedy win (just barely) against VP (and former Senator and Congressman) Nixon. Kennedy was ... a Kennedy with other attributes and Nixon was not (as we all came to know for sure later) a very likable or trustworthy candidate.

Go back 100 years and you find Ohio Senator Harding defeating Ohio Governor Cox (and his later very successful running mate FDR) by a landslide. To show how different things were then, Cox won the whole South except for TN, and the Republican Harding/Coolege ticket won everything else. Does this make an exception to the rule, or is it a strange anomaly from a century ago, or both?

It is also worth noting that being a VP, in spite of common intuition, is also not very strong, especially being the retiring VP. George H.W. Bush is the only exception. Nixon lost as retiring VP and won against the retiring VP later.

The no-retirement rule

I've seen a couple of other patterns in Presidential elections. One that may surprise people has that it's almost impossible for the successor to a retiring President to win the White House. The Democrats have never, ever defeated the Republican in this way. The closest they came was against John C. Fremont, the very first Republican nominee. Buchanan won, but his predecessor Franklin Pierce was not retiring, he was forced out at the convention after one term.

The Republicans have gotten in a successor, most recently with George H. W. Bush. Hoover also succeeded Coolidge (though Coolidge did not like him) after just one term. Taft was Teddy Roosevelt's chosen successor.

While Bush managed to succeed the retiring Reagan (one of the most popular GOP Presidents in the 20th century) generally the public seems to tire of Presidents and wants to switch. The Democratic party pattern of never pulling it off suggests that candidates like H. Clinton, McCain, Gore, Nixon and Stevenson started with a serious disadvantage in trying to succeed retiring Presidents for their party.

The counter-state advantage

Another pattern suggests a serious advantage is won by nominating a candidate who comes from a state belonging to the other party, particularly if they can win that state. Republicans from California like Nixon (the 2nd time) and Reagan may have used this advantage. Most of the recent Democrats like W. Clinton, Carter and Johnson follow this pattern, though Obama and Kennedy did not. Being from a counter-state is not required, but it does provide an obvious advantage, if it means the candidate can flip a large state. Of course, Al Gore was not able to win his own home red state. (Trump could not win his home state but it was also the home state of H. Clinton, and as we know, Trump went on to win.) Romney failed to use this advantage and could not win Massachusetts nor Michigan, his two home states. GHWB did win both his home states, including small but mostly blue Maine, but by 1992 he could no longer win Maine.

How strong are these rules

Except for the "Democrats never succeed a retiring Democrat," none of these rules are 100%. Rather, they describe some particular advantages which can swing a close race.

They suggest a party's ideal choice -- aside from running a popular incumbent -- is the governor of a large state that belongs to the opposite party. They can do this both when trying to replace a retiring President, but it is much more likely to work when not doing so. Governors don't have voting records, though they have veto and signing records on state but not federal bills.

A party planning for assured victory should put major effort into grooming and electing governors in the largest states of the other party. A successful GOP governor of California, with the ability to flip 55 votes, has a huge leg up. A Democratic governor from Texas or Georgia, or the South in general, also gets a big boost, as W. Clinton and Carter did.


Warren and Sanders or Sanders and Warren?

Disagree with "successful business or top-brass military career". Neither of those professions have the skills to herd cats to get a legislative agenda passed. Their skills are in being decisive and getting stuff done quickly and that is not how legislation works. Perhaps they can get elected but effectiveness is going to be nil. Agree that a governor of a midwest red state is an ideal candidate for democrats. Second choice probably a democratic senator from a midwest red state.

What are your thoughts on Al Franken now that he has "served his time"?

Governors do very well as candidates, mostly because they have that experience being the chief executive of a state (a mini-president), having to manage and balance the competing priorities of their states. Senators are good and creating decent laws, but lack the experience to execute. Military folks are great at execution, but lack the legislative experience. Business folks are similar to the military, except they are also lacking experience balancing competing priorities. In business the bottom line is money/profit (more or less). Business folks and mostly quantify the risk-reward of a decision. They often have trouble when they first move into government adapting to situations where group A wants to be tough on crime, while group B wants to save the environment, and both groups want you to spend money on their issue, and the outcome of spending that money is not always clear.

The President's job is not to herd the cats. His staff does the legwork on that. Trump is not wrong when he says that negotiation skills are important. (He's just not that great a negotiator himself.) But there are business people who have that. Less so in the military. There is of course debate as to how much the President should be involved in legislation. In the separation of powers, he's not supposed to get that involved, just to make the high level decision of signing. In practice they get involved.

Don't agree on a Senator (unless running against another Senator.) That just almost never works, as my table shows.

Democrat Governors in "Midwest" states:
Kansas - Laura Kelly - former Kansas Senator
Michigan - Gretchen Whitmer - Michigan Senate, Michigan House
Minnesota -Tim Walz - former US House
Wisconsin - Tony Evers - Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Schools
Montana is not considered Midwest but ... - Steve Bullock - Attorney General

Walz has National Experience and served 24 years in the Army National Guard. First elected in 2006 to US Congress and re-elected 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016.
Whitmer has more legislative experience. Elected Michigan House 2000, 2002, 2004. Michigan Senate 2006, 2010.
Kelly and Evers barely won their elections, both were squeakers.
For Governor of Michigan, Whitmer had 53.34% of the vote, Republican opponent had 43.81%, that is a good margin. Michigan is kinda considered purple, barely went to Trump.
For Governor or Minnesota, Walz had 53.9% of the vote, Republican candidate had 42.4%, also a good margin. Minnesota also considered purple, barely went to Clinton.
Steve Bullock has been elected Democrat Governor twice in Montana, a very solid red state.

There is a funny joke often told in DC. Every morning 101 people wake up, look in the mirror and think "I am the President of the United States". One is the President, the others are the Members of the US Senate.

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