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

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
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.

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.

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.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Elizabeth A. Snelson on 03/19/2019 - 10:46 am.


    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/19/2019 - 11:06 am.

      LBJ served in the Senate, but was Vice President before becoming President. You could say that made him technically an ex officio, non-voting member of the Senate.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/19/2019 - 11:07 am.

    “only three times has a sitting senator been elected to the presidency (and mostly pretty recently).”

    Perhaps that parentherical note is worth revisiting. While there have been more generals than senators among presidents historically, it does not seem like that is as likely a path in this day and age. Where governors presumably have an advantage is in a more obvious resume of executive experience. But perhaps that, too, is no longer a critical skill. So, then, what should we look for? Who’s going to excite the voters; and why? (How?)

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/19/2019 - 11:28 am.

      Well generals used to win wars, not just go on and on for a generation or two like we do these days. “We’re still almost finished over there” is not an inspiring campaign slogan.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/19/2019 - 12:36 pm.

      The record on Generals as President is a mixed one (looking at the Generals who never held any other office). On the positive side, we have Eisenhower. On the other side, Grant and Taylor.

      Once, we got lucky.

      • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 03/19/2019 - 01:15 pm.

        On the other side of being a General, 3 of the last 4 ran from military service.

        • Submitted by Mark Gruben on 03/20/2019 - 04:38 pm.

          While I won’t dispute the fact that three of the last four presidents had no military experience, it’s also true that what little experience the fourth did have was lackluster, at best. But it does serve to illustrate the point that the very nature of military service itself has changed dramatically. There was a time when it was almost expected that a young man would serve in the military in some capacity, and those who proved their mettle rose in the ranks and became officers; such leadership and executive experience was readily transferable to the Oval Office. But this did not necessarily make those men effective or successful Presidents. Today, while military service remains a noble, selfless, and honorable choice, it is basically that: a choice, just one of many. As such, it carries far less prestige than it once did. Regrettable as it may be, it is also a fact.

      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/20/2019 - 03:18 pm.

        And Washington, on the plus side.

        Curiously, we’re overlooking other military experience, which applied to JFK, GHWB, and Carter, to cite other recent examples.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/21/2019 - 09:00 am.

          Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, as was the norm for wealthy landowners.

          The name was changed to the House of Representatives in 1776, largely because of the uncertainty over how many esses to pout in.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/19/2019 - 06:48 pm.

    I almost never think of a Senator as having some sort of inside track to the presidency. Mostly, when someone says “Senator,” I think “Foghorn Leghorn,” not an image that inspires confidence in a Senatorial choice as a candidate. Keeping that cartoon image in mind makes it easier for me to deal with the candidates we have, even at this early stage. This year will provide several possibilities among the Democrats. We already know who the likely Republican blowhard will be.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/20/2019 - 05:51 am.

    People prefer governors. Senators have no base. They live in Washington far from their voters.

  5. Submitted by Laura Summers on 03/20/2019 - 09:28 am.

    Both the world and the “job” have changed greatly over the past 50 years or so. While some politicians acquire executive experience in state government, leading and managing at Federal level certainly requires more energy, talent and commitment than most governors can offer. Reigning supreme on twitter certainly doesn’t, or shouldn’t, count for much. Personally, I watch out for the candidate’s grasp of how the world is changing and his or her issue priorities.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/20/2019 - 10:17 am.

      Senators have always suffered something of a delusion to the effect that being a big deal in Washington is the same thing as being a big deal.

      • Submitted by Laura Summers on 03/21/2019 - 04:15 am.

        I can’t disagree with you on that point. But Senators also have a frontline view–and often a more penetrating view, if they seek it–of what’s not working well in the executive branch. That knowledge probably encourages many of them to think that they could do the “job” better.

        • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/21/2019 - 10:04 am.

          Having watched a lot of Sunday morning news shows, I haven’t known very many senators display any benefit from their front line view.

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