Obama's and Biden's ‘Senate-ness' could prove to be a disadvantage

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | 10:35 a.m. CDT

In the 20th-century history of presidential elections, up to the present, there appears to be a built-in popular bias against U.S. senators, especially sitting senators. By naming Joseph Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has forged a ticket of not one but two sitting senators, which has only been tried once in the past 108 years. Is that too much "Senate-ness" for the American electorate? Let us examine the extent of this bias, its possible sources, how Obama might overcome it and who McCain should choose if he wants to play the odds.

Only two sitting senators have ever been elected president: Warren Harding and John Kennedy. Much more popular with voters are governors, who have never lost a presidential contest with a senator in modern times. Congressmen, cabinet members and even ambassadors have a better batting average than senators. The last eight elections have been won by seven governors and an ambassador. Senators Kerry, Gore, Dole, Mondale and McGovern were among the losers.


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This result is counterintuitive. Senators should do well in presidential elections. A senator has direct experience with the government a president presides over (unlike a governor ). A senator gets elected to the next broadest jurisdiction below president (unlike a congressperson). A cabinet member or ambassador does not by virtue of that office have any campaign experience whatsoever. So where is the rub?

Speculation can run rampant. Distrust of someone who is perceived as too entrenched in "big government" has to be part of it. How else would a man with no governmental experience whatsoever like Ross Perot have garnered 19 percent of the vote in 1992? But perhaps one key to the sitting senator problem is the fact that a sitting senator usually wins his home state. Mondale won Minnesota and Goldwater won Arizona. It appears that voters do not look fondly on other people's senators, but their own are OK.

It makes a certain amount of sense. The federal budget is a zero-sum game and other people's senators are our competition at the feeding trough of federal spending. We suspect that a senator from another state is a "corrupt power-wielder" while our own senator is just "making sure we get what is coming to us." We look much more kindly upon governors of other states who juggle their own people's money, have to balance their state's budget every year and, most importantly, never have had to put their hands in our pockets for anything. Governors just seem to have lighter baggage than senators. And the same is true, to a lesser extent, of congresspersons, who are still "up there in Washington" but in a lesser way than senators.

Another theory is that voters prefer the devil they don't know to the devil they know. Senators share a national stage and there are only 100 of them. Fewer numbers means higher name recognition. Higher name recognition means higher negatives. The federal body with the fewest members is the U.S. Supreme Court and look how high their negatives are. Scalia and Ginsburg could not get elected dog catcher in New York and Alabama, respectively.

Whatever theory one may choose, the curse is real. Bob Dole thought the curse was real enough to resign from the Senate and move back to Kansas after securing the nomination so he would not have a Washington address. The voters in November 1996 obviously were not fooled by this attempt to cover up his "Senate-ness". Richard Nixon, ever the savvy politician, avoided the curse as much as he could. He was outside the Beltway for most of his two-year stint, anti-communist stump-speaking and running for vice-president.

Nixon of course eventually won as did two other men who were not sitting senators but ex-senators. The curse eventually caught up with all three, however. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson could live down their Senate resumes for their first elections (being incumbent presidents did not hurt either), but eventually their "Senate-ness" caught up with them as they grew too unpopular to seek a second term. Nixon was the only president in history to resign.

So when was the last time two sitting senators on one ticket was tried? In 1960 with Kennedy and Johnson. Obama's youth and message of change clearly invite comparison to JFK. Defeating this historical curse is yet another way that Obama will have to "be like Kennedy" this fall. Obama can well argue that if it took two sitting senators to bring America into the new era of the '60s, it will take two again to address the challenges that face us now. But if John McCain, also a sitting senator, wants the odds to be in his favor he'll choose for a running mate some cozy little governor, carrying baggage so light that it does not incur a charge on a U.S. airline.

Emmett McAuliffe is an intellectual property lawyer in St. Louis.



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