Smart Money Still on Govs for GOP Nod in 2016

Smart Money Still on Govs for GOP Nod in 2016

By Tom Bevan - July 1, 2013

There's been much hype lately surrounding three enterprising young Republicans in the Senate, and rightfully so. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz are dynamic personalities who've thrust their way into the public debate in recent months on issues ranging from drones to gun control to immigration.

All three appear to harbor aspirations for higher office, and are already in the conversation as potential presidential contenders in 2016. It would be foolish to count them out.

By historical standards, they lack the requisite experience to sit in the Oval Office. But so did another freshman senator, Barack Obama. Moreover, Americans' attentions spans are so short these days that candidates who burst on the scene only a short time ago -- Sarah Palin being the outstanding example -- are already old stories.

And though Paul, Rubio, and Cruz hail from a political party that traditionally awards its presidential nomination to the next guy in line, no obvious person fits that description today. The 2016 field truly is an open one.

Yet, history says they’re all underdogs to win the GOP nomination and face even longer odds of winning back the White House for Republicans.

Here’s why: Of the 12 competitive presidential primaries conducted in the post-World War II era, only three incumbent senators have managed to win the Republican nomination (Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, and John McCain). None of them came close to winning.

Over the same period, Republicans have turned to a war hero (Dwight D. Eisenhower), and to Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s two-term vice president. They each won twice.

Republicans also turned to governors and former governors: Two of them lost to popular incumbent presidents -- Thomas Dewey lost in 1944 to Franklin Roosevelt and, more famously, in 1948 to Harry Truman, and Mitt Romney last year. But ex-California Gov. Ronald Reagan carried the electorate in 1980 and 1984, and influenced it again in 1988, when his vice president succeeded him.

The 41st president’s eldest son, the sitting governor of Texas, ascended to the White House in 2000, and won re-election four years later -- against a senator. The eight-year hiatus of presidents named Bush came at the hands of another governor, the pride of Hope, Ark.

If one of the GOP’s young senators does manage to win the nomination, history says his odds of winning the White House decrease even more. While 16 of America’s 44 presidents have served in the U.S. Senate at some point in their careers, only three have successfully made the jump directly from Congress’ upper chamber to the White House: Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Obama.

Why is it so tough for senators? For starters, they’re perceived as “talkers” while others, especially governors, are seen as “doers.” While senators like to claim authorship of important federal legislation, that’s a decidedly mixed blessing. Voters, with help from the opposition party, are also made familiar with their “nay” votes. More often than not, having a “record" in the Senate is a drawback. As John Kerry discovered, Senate votes can be hard to explain during a campaign conducted in sound bites.

In a broader sense, the biggest hurdle for most senators is that they’re viewed as creatures of Washington, insiders who belong to the “World’s Most Exclusive Club” but are detached from the realities of everyday life. This is especially true in today’s political environment and within the Republican Party in particular. People may like individual senators, but they hate Washington -- and Congress has the worst job approval ratings in history to prove it.

Sen. Obama managed to successfully sidestep this issue in 2008 by casting himself as someone who had yet to be “corrupted” by the ways of Washington -- an argument aided by the fact that some of his main competitors for the Democratic nomination had been in Congress since Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Paul, Rubio, and Cruz will make the same case if any of them decides to run, but campaigning against the institution you belong to can be tricky, and it’s a handicap others won’t have.

Speaking of handicaps, it’s also worth mentioning that the odds facing Paul Ryan (or any other House member) in making it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are even longer. The only candidate from the House to ever won their party’s nomination - and the White House - is James Garfield in 1880.

So the smart money for the Republican nomination remains on the large crop of GOP governors around the country, most of who are working diligently, quietly and probably far more effectively, building their resumes for higher office.

Many of them, including Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Susana Martinez, and Bobby Jindal, are already part of the 2016 conversation. Don’t be surprised to see others who’ve not yet been mentioned -- such as John Kasich, Sam Brownback and Mike Pence -- begin to gain notice as well. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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