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A reminder: Only three sitting senators have ever been elected president

The three sitting senators who were elected to the White House were Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio in 1920, Democrat John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960, and Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008.

President Barack Obama
The three sitting senators who were elected to the White House were Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio in 1920, Democrat John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960, and Barack Obama of Illinois, above, in 2008.
REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Pure trivia, but it caught me off-guard. So far, a staggering six of the Senate’s 47 Democrats (including one from Minnesota, in case you hadn’t heard) are seeking the party’s nomination to run for president. But the fact that surprised me, from Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections, was that only three times has a sitting senator been elected to the presidency (and mostly pretty recently).

The three sitting senators who were elected to the White House were Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio in 1920, Democrat John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960, and Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008.

And none of those three was a titan of the Senate. JFK had just begun his second term when he started running for president and was nowhere near a leader in the Senate. Obama was halfway through his first. Harding, who is universally rated as among the worst of presidents, was also in his first Senate term when he won the presidency in landslide.

There were others who became presidents after having been in the U.S. Senate (Andrew Jackson, for one example, but his brief Senate tenure is not a major part of his biography). But not nearly as many as you might have expected, and pretty much none who are best remembered for major Senate service.

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Anyway, it was unexpected even to a history nerd like me, perhaps because nowadays it’s pretty much a joke (funny because it seems so true) that every senator harbors presidential ambitions. (Former Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz used to joke that he was the only senator not eying a presidential bid, and that was only because the Constitution requires the president to be U.S.-born, and Boschwitz was born in Germany, brought to America as a child by his family seeking refuge from the rising Nazi horror.)

A relatively new phenomenon

My main point is the one I made already, with Rothenberg’s help. Nowadays, when we think of likely presidential candidates, our minds probably flow to senators first (and, apparently, so do theirs). But this a relatively new phenomenon.

Before the current incumbent, every president elected had previously held at least one of these jobs: governor, vice president, Cabinet member, member of Congress, or Army general. But presidential success seems to have little to do with résumé. 

Abe Lincoln served a single not-particularly-distinguished term in the U.S. House. And some of those who did ride into the White House with the strongest-looking résumés turned out to be among the worst presidents. James Buchanan, the immediately pre-Civil War president, had served in the Congress, the Cabinet and ambassadorial posts, but is always part of the discussion when the subject of worst presidents arises.

Governors and veeps dominate

If you’re curious, among those almost-requisite credentials, the two that dominate are governors (Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) and vice presidents. Eight vice presidents got the big job upon the death (or, in one case, resignation) of the president. Those are: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford. Only three of those won a term in their own right.

Then there are the veeps who made it to the big job by actually winning an election when they weren’t already president. That adds five more names of presidents who had been veeps: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon (who didn’t make it until the second try) and George H.W. Bush. Either way, the ex-veepship has been the single most common résumé item for those who became president.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece had Rutherford B. Hayes in the final group of presidents who had been a vice president. He was never a veep.