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'Being Governor Ain't What It Used to Be': How Their Road to the White House Became an Uphill Climb

All but one of America's presidents between 1976 and 2004 were governors. Since then, state leaders have barely stood a chance at the Oval Office.

Steve Bullock
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is expected next week to announce that he's running for president. Governors used to dominate in presidential elections, but those days seem to be gone.
(AP/Jose Luis Magana)
Last Updated May 14 at 8:24 a.m. ET

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined the already jammed Democratic field for president on Monday, following Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, among many other candidates.

Perhaps Bullock can boost the share of support that governors are taking in early polls. Inslee and Hickenlooper are averaging a meager 1 percent -- combined.

Governors were once a dominant force in presidential politics, winning seven of the eight elections between 1976 and 2004. Those days appear to be over. In 2016, no fewer than 10 current or former governors ran for president. None of them came close to winning a major-party nomination, although Republican Donald Trump did pick Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate and vice president.

This year, the Democratic field is dominated by senators, while governors are at the back of the pack. (On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the Libertarian nominee for vice president in 2016, is running as an anti-Trump protest candidate. But his campaign has been a non-starter.)

“Being a governor ain’t what it used to be in running for the White House,” says Saladin Ambar, author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency.

Historically, Ambar notes, governors fared well in national politics when voters were fed up with Washington. Yet the public's trust in the federal government is near an all-time low, and governors are still failing to gain any traction. 

“In choosing Trump, Americans went for the ultimate outsider, someone with zero government experience,” says Ambar, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Governors’ shtick, if you will, has been usurped.”  

Democrat Barack Obama lowered the bar for running with limited experience, winning the presidency during his first U.S. Senate term. Despite serving away from Washington, governors often have more experience – and longer records – than many of the senators who are running. Before his two terms as governor, Hickenlooper served eight years as Denver mayor, while Inslee spent more time in Congress than Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren combined.

The current media landscape is another handicap for governors. Voters may not like Washington, but social media and cable television have become obsessively focused on the nation’s capital, leaving governors largely out of the conversation. Governors don't get to grill cabinet secretaries or Supreme Court nominees during nationally televised hearings.

“A reason for greater prominence of the senators is the platform provided to them by virtue of serving in Washington,” says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. “With so much of the political establishment and journalistic industry focused on Trump’s every action, senators who are pointed to be the immediate responders are better positioned to get noticed.”


A Brief History

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting governor elected to the White House, succeeding the scandal-plagued administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Throughout industrialization and the progressive movement, voters turned to governors with “clean hands,” says Ambar, seeing them as reformers who could change the culture in Washington. Those included Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and the two Roosevelts.

During much of the Cold War, Americans wanted presidents who offered foreign policy experience, turning to former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and a series of D.C. veterans, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. 

All that changed after Watergate. From the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 through George W. Bush in 2000, with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in between, four out of five presidents had served as governor.

“The period after Watergate, post-Vietnam, was about people laying claim that they could do something about the mess after Washington,” Ambar says.

Then in 2008, Obama became the first sitting senator elected president since Kennedy in 1960. Obama beat John McCain, another senator, that year, and defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.

In 2016, Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who presented themselves as blustery outsiders, proved no match for Trump’s ultimate outsider appeal.

“Governors are running on executive experience,” says Dennis Goldford, a close observer of the Iowa caucuses at Drake University. “You can argue Trump shows we don’t need it. That opens up the field.”


Are Governors Too Moderate?

Even in today’s polarized era, governors as a group are less ideological than senators. The nature of their job forces them to concentrate on nuts-and-bolts governance -- building roads and improving schools. They don’t breathe the type of partisan fire that attracts attention in a field with nearly two dozen candidates.

“In an earlier, less partisan era, one advantage that governors had when they ran for president is that their office allowed them to be moderates,” says Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. “Chief executives can make their own politics in a state, position themselves between and thus above the parties, and avoid being pulled into Washington's partisan maelstrom. Today, it seems that being at the center of that storm is instead where the advantage is.”

Inslee has carved out a role for himself by making climate change the overarching focus of his campaign. So far, at least, that’s just a niche. Climate typically ranks far behind other issues, such as health, the economy and immigration, as a top-of-mind concern for voters.

Appealing to moderates has served the other governors in the 2020 race no better. Bullock has been touting his success in winning office in a rural state and getting bills passed by a Republican legislature. It’s not clear, however, that Democratic primary voters are yearning for someone to take a collaborative approach with the national GOP.

Last week, Hickenlooper wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal stating that he is running to “save capitalism,” saying he rejects “the idea we can improve health care by turning it entirely over to the government.” Those are not rousing slogans in a party that is considering ways to make Medicare universal and provide free or debt-free college tuition.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s criticisms of Trump have helped keep his approval ratings high in the blue state of Maryland, but they’re unlikely to gain him any real traction among Republican primary voters -- roughly 90 percent of whom approve of Trump’s performance -- if he makes good on his occasional talk about entering the race.

“Senators’ more extreme stances are a boon, rather than an obstacle -- at least in the presidential primary,” Kousser says. “Governors might have the best chance of winning in November but not be able to make it past Super Tuesday.”


What About Mayors Running for President?

None of the governors running this time around come from big electoral states. But even Montana has more residents than South Bend, Ind. -- the 301st largest city in the country and home base of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the current occupant of the cover of Time. The previously unknown Democrat has enjoyed a boom, polling as high as third place in the early primary states, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“There is no better training ground for a higher-level executive position than being mayor,” says Annise Parker, a former mayor of Houston.

The job of mayor has traditionally not been a stepping stone to the presidency. No mayor has ever been elected president directly, and only three former mayors -- Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge -- have ever made it to the White House. The presidential runs of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and his predecessor John V. Lindsay in 1972 both fizzled quickly.

The imminent presidential announcement of current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is being greeted with more derision than excitement. Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans both pulled the plug on their presidential runs before they were officially begun.

Buttigieg’s success may prove as fleeting as it is surprising. But his emergence from the large field demonstrates something important: It’s too early to count any of the governors out. With more than 20 candidates in the Democratic field, a sudden rise to single-digit support will be treated like real momentum.

“Don’t write them off just yet,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “There’s a chance one will catch fire. We’ve got a long way to go, and surely some of the governors will get moments to shine.”

This story has been updated.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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