A Century of Presidential Elections – Statistics Worth Knowing

by John F. Di Leo


I often talk about what jobs are most winnable for the White House.

Vice Presidents look like they have a great shot at it, but statistically, most VPs who have become president have done so by succeeding their dead bosses, not by winning on their own.  It happens occasionally (as in GHW Bush’s case), but not often.

In our first century, successful generals had a great shot at it, but as the nation has changed, so has this issue.  Only one general has been elected to the presidency in a century.  And Ike was, in a way, a political leader as much as a general, because he commanded the entire allied effort for years.

We have no VPs or Generals to consider right now, so what’s left?  Governors, senators, ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, congressmen…

In my time, I’ve supported quite a mix.  Ambassador Keyes once, Congressmen twice (Dornan and Crane), a broadcaster once (Pat Robertson, back when he was sane), a journalist once (Pat Buchanan)… none of them even won the nomination.

Only in my 40s did I really begin to understand the nature of this battle:  while anyone can run, only governors and senators really have a good shot at the nomination, and of them, only governors are really likely to win the nomination, and win the White House.

Now, lots of people have held multiple jobs, so some have been generals and senators and governors, all, before rising to the presidency.  In my comparisons, I have paid attention to the candidate’s last job before running for the presidency.  So for example, if someone was a congressman and a Supreme Court Justice, I would say he was a justice when he lost his presidential bid, because that’s how people would have addressed him during the campaign.

I believe that there are three kinds of voters:

  •  Voters who vote on party or ideology – these conservatives and liberals don’t care if a candidate is a governor or a street sweeper, they want the person they agree with.
  • Voters who don’t really think at all, they go for who they like, who’s attractive, who’s exciting or trustworthy.  I know it sounds stupid, but lots of voters are like this.  That’s why we can’t run somebody deadly dull or ugly or stumbling, no matter how good on the issues.  We need a candidate who will appeal to at least half of the thoughtless voters, the ones who picked Jack Kennedy because they liked his hair and his smile.
  • Voters who work hard on thinking it through, and settle on a candidate with a resume that impresses them.  I call these the resume voters, and they approach their vote as a hiring manager approaches the applicants for a job.  They want the person who looks most like he or she is ready to be president.

We need to appeal to all three types of voters.  Win our base (the Democrats will pick someone who can win theirs!), run somebody likable and appealing (the Democrats will try, but sadly, for this group, just being a Democrat is considered “likeable”, so they have an edge)… and run someone who is “ready” to be president.  I would argue, that means a successful, impressive governor with a great record.

This is not to say that nobody but a governor could be a good president.  OF COURSE lots of others could be.  I would LOVE to see Ambassador John Bolton or businessman Steve Forbes or writer Ann Coulter as president.  But they can’t win, because they won’t appeal to all three of those groups.

You have to first convince the primary voters that you’re both the right choice and that you can win in the general election, AND then you have to actually win that general election.

Let’s look at the last hundred years or so, and see what roles won.   I know this isn’t the only issue, but I do believe it matters.  Please indulge me.


2012: Governor against incumbent president – Gov Romney came close.

2008: Senator against Senator. Can’t be counted.

2004: Senator against incumbent president. Sen Kerry didn’t even come close.

2000: Governor against Vice President. Gov Bush won in a squeaker.

1996: Senator against incumbent president. Sen Dole was obliterated.

1992: Governor against incumbent president. Gov Clinton beat Pres Bush.

(yes, I realize third parties sometimes have an effect.. I’m choosing not to pay attention to them here, but I know that for perfect statistical analysis, we could look at the Perots and Andersons and Naders of the world).

1988: Incumbent veep against governor. VP Bush solidly beat Gov Dukakis.

1984: Veep against incumbent president. Reagan mopped the floor with Mondale.

1980: Governor against incumbent president. Gov Reagan mopped the floor with Carter.

1976: Governor against incumbent president. Gov Carter beat Pres Ford in a squeaker.

1972: Senator against incumbent president. The universally hated Pres Nixon still mopped the floor with Sen McGovern.

1968: Former Veep against Current Veep: Nixon beat Humphrey.

1964: Senator against incumbent president: LBJ mopped the floor with Barry Goldwater.

1960: Senator against veep: Sen JFK beat VP Nixon in a relatively close race.

1956: Governor against incumbent president: Ike beat Stevenson.

1952: Governor against the general who beat the Nazis: Ike beat Stevenson.

1948: Governor against incumbent president: Pres Truman beat Gov Dewey, but it was close.

1944: Governor against incumbent president: FDR-that-SOB beat Gov Dewey. Should’ve shaved that mustache…

1940: Non-politician lawyer against incumbent president: FDR-that-SOB beat Wendell Willkie. Big surprise.

1936: Governor against incumbent president: FDR-that-SOB beat Gov Alf Landon. Landslide.

1932: Governor against incumbent president: FDR-that-SOB beat Pres Hoover.

1928: Secretary of Commerce against governor: Hoover beat Al Smith, governor of New York, chiefly because of religious prejudice. Those don’t believe that prejudice would really affect a presidential election should remember 1928, when Al Smith should have won, but he was RC. Nominating a Mormon today is unwise for the same reason. Mitt Romney did wonderfully, considering… but we cost ourselves a few points by nominating a Mormon, knowing full well that there are lots of people idiotically bigoted against the election of a Mormon.

1924: ambassador against incumbent president: Amb Davis lost to Pres Coolidge.

1920: senator against governor: Senator Harding beat Governor Cox.

1916: Supreme Court Justice against incumbent president: Wilson beat Justice Hughes

1912: governor against incumbent president: Gov Wilson beat Pres Taft, with an assist from TR, that jerk…

1908: governor against congressman: Governor Taft beat former Rep Williams Jennings Bryan

1904: judge against incumbent president: TR obliterated Judge Parker.

1900: congressman against incumbent president: Pres McKinley beat Rep William Jennings Bryan.

1896: governor against congressman: Gov McKinley beat Rep William Jennings Bryan.


Enough…. That’s going back 120 years. My basic point is this: Only governors have a great shot at winning nominations, and once won, only governors have a great shot at winning the presidential election. Vice Presidents fare very well, but we don’t have one to run this time.

Universally beloved commanding generals used to fare well, but we don’t have one of those at the moment either (it’s a different age; the late Norman Schwartzkof is the only general of the past thirty years I think MIGHT have been able to win the presidency)…

Senators have trouble winning the nomination, and though a couple have won the White House, it’s usually been in very odd circumstances. 2008 can’t count because it was senator vs senator…. 1960 is hard to count because it was so close it really could have gone either way. 1920 was odd because the Wilson administration made the entire country hate the democrats so much, we could probably have nominated a tree frog and won. But still, it was decisive, so I’ll give 1920 as an example of a successful senator’s presidential campaign.

But that’s nearly a hundred years ago. In the meantime, Governors have won nomination after nomination, and lots of general elections too. You have to go all the way back to 1892 to find a senator who defeated an incumbent president.

Voters – not all voters, but the swing type that we need to win over – tend to give a solid edge to governors. Whether that’s fair or reasonable isn’t the issue; it’s just a proven fact.

Voters – especially ones without clear ideological preferences of their own – like to go by a candidate’s resume, and a governor looks and feels more “ready” for the presidency than just about anybody else.

That’s why I’ve given up on other offices.

When we need to win… and in 2016, we do NEED to win… we need to support the best governor we can for the nomination.

Not a bad governor, not just any governor, but a great one.

And luckily, this time, we have a few to choose from!

copyright 2015  John F. Di Leo  

 January 28, 2015 A. D.

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