Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's exit on Thursday (Feb. 7) from the 2008 race for the Republican presidential nomination vastly increases the odds that the next occupant of the White House will come from the U.S. Senate - not from a governor's mansion.
The absence of a governor in the top tier of presidential contenders is rare in recent years. Four of the last five presidents were governors first, and 17 of 43 presidents were governors.
|Governors turned vice presidents
|Source: National Governors Association
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is still in the Republican presidential hunt. But with fewer than 200 delegates after Super Tuesday, it will be an uphill battle for Huckabee to overtake the frontrunner, U.S. Sen. John McCain. He already has more than 700 delegates out of 1,191 needed to win the party's nomination at this summer's convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
Political circles already are buzzing with speculation that Huckabee would be a good No. 2 on the GOP ticket, making up what McCain lacks in appeal with conservative Republicans and Southern voters. If that happens, Huckabee would be in contention to join 11 other governors who became vice presidents, starting with Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia governor who went on to serve as vice president in 1797 and president in 1801.
History shows governors have a better track record than U.S. senators of winning the presidency. But Romney's departure increased the likelihood that for only the third time in history, a sitting U.S. senator would move from Capitol Hill to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
While McCain leads the GOP primary race, two sitting U.S. senators - Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illlinois - are essentially in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination with each winning some 1,000 delegates. A Democrat needs 2,025 delegates to win the nomination at the convention in Denver.
|Governors turned presidents
|Source: National Governors Association, Stateline.org reporting
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) was the only sitting governor in the presidential race, but he bowed out Jan. 10 after fourth-place finishes in both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Historically, governors' experience running a state government, balancing a budget and making executive decisions have given them an edge in seeking the nation's highest office.
During the Jan. 30 CNN GOP presidential debate
, Huckabee summed up his gubernatorial experience this way: "I've actually managed a government for 10 and a half years. … Washington doesn't understand how states operate, but states understand how Washington operates."
Taking aim at his senatorial opponents, Huckabee said senators "have the luxury of picking out particular issues that they can specialize in. Governors don't get to specialize. They have to be able to handle on any given day several dozen different issues and see how they integrate together for a strong economy, a strong sense of security. And that's how it works."
Only two sitting U.S. senators moved directly from the U.S. Capitol to the White House - Warren G. Harding in 1921 and John F. Kennedy in 1961, while seven governors went straight from being head of a state to head of the United States. The success rate is better for senators who leave office, then run for the White House, such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who went from the U.S Senate to the vice presidency then the presidency.
Overall, 17 governors went on to serve as U.S. president compared to 15 U.S. senators.
In this election, the early campaigns drew heavily from the U.S. Senate. For the Democrats, that included Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), Joe Biden (Delaware) and Christopher Dodd (Conn.). The Republican pack included Sens. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) and Sam Brownback (Kansas). All have dropped out. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is still in the GOP primary race.
Usually, senators' extensive voting records have been liabilities in presidential races. This year, "the senators have done a better job doing to governors what has been done to them," said Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, meaning that senators have used inconsistencies in governors' own records against them. "That's what happened to Romney. He became the flip-flopper," he said. On top of that, the importance that voters give to national security issues in 2008 gives senators, not governors, an advantage because those decisions are made in Washington, D.C., he said.
Finally, Zelizer said, this election is different because of the presence of "celebrity senators," who were well-known before the campaign started.
If a senator wins the White House this year, regardless of party, it could serve as a blueprint for others in future presidential bids and "could counteract some of the bad experiences senators have had," Zelizer said.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
, cautioned against reading too much into the current dynamics. "Look over time and ask what kind of person do Americans prefer in the Oval Office. Naturally they prefer an executive. But circumstances don't always allow them to vote for an executive." He added, "There is no trend" away from voters wanting executive experience. This year, "it's pure happenstance" that senators are besting governors in the race for president.