Who will be President in 2008?

Author: Samuel Metz

Date: 03/01/2006

In 2008, the United States will encounter the first Presidential election since 1952 in which neither a President nor Vice President will be a candidate.

This presumes, of course, Republicans recognize that Dick Cheney provides the most service to his party not as an elected official accountable to the electorate, but as a behind-the-scenes activist accountable to no one.

What can we learn from the 14 elections since 1952 that tell us who will be the next President?

Of the 28 Presidential candidates in the 14 elections, there are 19 individuals since several participated in more than one election. Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and George W Bush ran in two elections and won both; Stevenson ran in two and lost both; Carter and George HW Bush ran in two, each winning one and losing the second; and Nixon ran in three, losing the first and winning the next two.

Note: With Nixon's two additional successful campaigns as Vice President under Eisenhower, he joins FDR as the only Presidential candidates to participate in five Presidential elections. Nixon is also the first candidate to lose a Presidential election and subsequently be elected since Grover Cleveland lost his attempt at re-election in 1888 but won his next campaign in 1892.

Let's look at the status of each candidate immediately prior to the election (see Table).

Nine were already President. Six won their elections (Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W Bush) and three lost (Ford, Carter, and George HW Bush). All three Presidential incumbents were defeated by Governors (Carter, Reagan, and Clinton). Johnson declined to run for re-election although he was eligible, making him the first to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Four candidates were seated Vice Presidents. One was elected (George HW Bush); the others (Nixon, Humphrey, and Gore) defeated by, respectively, a Senator (Kennedy), private citizen (Nixon), and Governor (George W Bush).

Five candidates were Senators of whom only one (Kennedy) was elected.

Seven were Governors of whom four were elected (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W Bush) and three were not (Stevenson twice, and Dukakis once).

Three were private citizens at the time of their candidacy. Two were elected (Eisenhower and Nixon) and one was not (Mondale).

What can we learn about being elected President from these results?

1. It's good to be President. Incumbent Presidents enjoy the highest election rate of any group.

2. It's not good to be Vice President. Seated Vice Presidents have a dismal record for reaching the Presidency. Even if we include Nixon and Mondale as former Vice Presidents (although not holding office at the time of their campaigns), the record is not attractive. The Vice Presidency is a stepping stone to obscurity, not the Presidency.

3. It's worse to be a Senator. It's worse still to be a Senator running against an incumbent President: none have succeeded (Goldwater, McGovern, Dole, and Kerry).

4. If you want to beat an incumbent President, be a Governor.

5. In fact, it's pretty good to be a Governor. Only two Governors, who ran for a total of three times (Stevenson twice, Dukakis once), lost while the other four were successful.

6. Seriously consider being a private citizen. Although a small and elite group (Eisenhower, Nixon, Mondale), their success rate rivals that of incumbent Presidents.

7. Most importantly, avoid public exposure on national issues; especially avoid voting on national issues. The success rate of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Senators (44 %) does not approach that of Governors and private citizens (60%). If we exclude incumbent Presidents from this list and count Governor Stevenson only one, the comparison (22% vs 67%) becomes more dramatic.

Clearly a candidate with no voting record on national issues (such as a Governor or private citizen) has the jump on a candidate with a record to defend (such as a President, Vice President, or Senator).

Looking at this picture and taking into account the distant example of 1952, we can expect our next President to be, right now in 2006, a Governor or private citizen.

But which Governor? Which private citizen?

Let's look at prior successful Governors. All were Governors for more than two years prior to the campaign. All had avoided voting on national issues because none had served in the US Congress. Let us begin to pare down our current 50 Governors to a manageable few.

Seven served previously in the US Congress; we exclude them (including Bill Richardson of New Mexico, of whom more later).

We exclude any current Governor who is ineligible to run again in 2006 or has announced retirement; none will be Governors in 2008. This eliminates ten more (including Jeb Bush of Florida, of whom more later).

We also exclude six whose current popularity ratings are so low they are unlikely to win re-election (Schwarznegger of California is ineligible anyhow).

One Governor came to office by succession, not by election (Heineman of Nebraska). Another off the list.

Let us reluctantly admit that the American voter is not yet ready to elect a President who is female (eight eliminated), Jewish (Rendell of Pennsylvania), Mormon (Huntsman of Utah), or freshly divorced (Corzine of New Jersey).

One Governor (Mounds of South Dakota) has already been compelled to take a stand on a burning national issue. He would have been removed from the list whether he signed or vetoed the South Dakota abortion legislation.

Who is left?

Eight Republicans (Perdue of GA, Daniels of IN, Pawlenty of MN, Barbour of MS, Hoeven of ND, Carcieri of RI, Perry of TX, and Douglas of VT) and eight Democrats (Schweitzer of Montana, Lynch of NH, Henry of OK, Bredesen of TN, Kaine of VA, Manchin of WV, Doyle of WI, and Freudenthal of WY.

Of these 17 Governors, we'll give extra credit to those who have pre-existing support from either of the major party leadership. These would be Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee Chair; Timothy Pawlenty , who enjoys the patronage of Dick Cheney; Joe Manchin, Vice Chair of the Democratic Governor's Association; and Tim Kaine, who was chosen to give the Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union Address. These four make it to our short list.

But let's not forget about our private citizens.

Among prior private citizens who ran for President, two were former Vice Presidents. One was elected President (Nixon) and the other lost (Mondale). It is conceivable that our current former Vice President and Presidential loser, Gore, may be a candidate. We include him in our short list.

Party leaders have already mentioned two current governors, one of whose term expires in 2006 (Bush of Florida) and another with prior Congressional experience (Richardson of New Mexico) as candidates in 2008 (Bush and Richardson). Although there is no precedent for these two wild cards, as it were, they will be included as well.

But what about private citizens with no prior elected office of any kind? All three private citizens running for President were household names two years in advance. If Eisenhower serves as model, this private citizen would greatly benefit from being a war hero and having no voting record. Whom should we call upon?

Paging Colin Powell?

Based on the above premises, all of them suspect and statistically invalid, our short list contains eight names. Read 'em and weep. One is very likely to be sworn in on January 20, 2009.


Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi; Timothy Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota; Jeb Bush, soon to be former Governor of Florida; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Joe Manchin, Governor of West Virginia; Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia; Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico; Al Gore, former Vice President

Of course, American voters are notoriously sensitive to issues like personality and political convictions, so don't bet the farm on these guys.


Table. Presidential candidates: campaign status and region

Year Winner Campaign Status Loser Campaign Status
1952 Eisenhower Private Citizen Stevenson Governer
1956 Eisenhower President Stevenson Governer
1960 Kennedy Senator Nixon Vice President
1964 Johnson President Goldwater Senator
1968 Nixon Private Citizen Humphrey Vice President
1972 Nixon President McGovern Senator
1976 Carter Governor Ford President
1980 Reagan Governor Carter President
1984 Reagan President Mondale Private Citizen
1988 GHW Bush Vice President Dukakis Governor
1992 Clinton Governor Bush President
1996 Clinton President Dole Senator
2000 GW Bush Governor Gore Vice President
2004 GW Bush President Kerry Senator

On 12/23/07, a reader wrote with some perceptive comments about this essay, and I responded.  That correspondence is below

Sent: Sunday, December 23, 2007 11:19 AM 

Subject: Your essay "Who will be president in 2008?"

I liked it. And I agree with most of your logic. However, in retrospect, it seems to have some problems:

"Let us reluctantly admit that the American voter is not yet ready to elect a President who is female (eight eliminated), Jewish (Rendell of Pennsylvania), Mormon (Huntsman of Utah), or freshly divorced (Corzine of New Jersey)." Hillary, Mitt, Rudy? All looking pretty strong! " Governors left "Eight Republicans (Perdue of GA, Daniels of IN, Pawlenty of MN, Barbour of MS, Hoeven of ND, Carcieri of RI, Perry of TX, and Douglas of VT) and eight Democrats (Schweitzer of Montana, Lynch of NH, Henry of OK, Bredesen of TN, Kaine of VA, Manchin of WV, Doyle of WI, and Freudenthal of WY."  Did any of these even enter the race?

As a frequent reader of your essays, I would be curious to hear your comments on why this particular essay was so far from the mark. Which assumptions in your logic were not valid - and why? What in our current world has changed so fundamentally that your logical approach based primarily on history is so wrong?

My response:

You are correct that this essay completely missed the mark. I pondered a long time to figure out why. I found the culprit.

I presumed that there was indeed a governor secretly plotting to become President. The entire point of the essay was to identify that governor before he went public. But there was no such governor, certainly not matching the intensity of Reagan, Carter, Bill Clinton, or George W. So my essay fell flat because my basic thesis was wrong.

I was wrong on another point as well. This is clearly a campaign in which personalities and current issues overwhelm the import of a candidate's previous national record.

Some lesser points may still be valid. In this campaign, the Senatorial candidates are fending off attacks regarding votes on national issues dating back five years or more. Obama gets off lightly because his Senatorial tenure is so short. Clinton and especially McCain have their hands full.

Also, we have an unusual number of private citizens in this campaign: Guiliani, Huckabee, Edwards, and Richardson. All remain at least pesky, if not competitive. Only Edwards has a Senatorial voting record to defend. Richardson's stint in the House is too distant to matter.

I will share one concern, which can be taken as a prediction. Because all of the Democratic candidates are Senators (Richardson excepted), they face an uphill battle against the most dangerous of the Republican candidates, former governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee, a crafty opponent with the moral agenda of George W and the intelligence of Dick Cheney, will keep any Democrat on the ropes attempting to explain obscure Senatorial votes of little relevance.


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