By Mark Rhoads
The old traditional rules of presidential politics seem to have disappeared in 2011. For most of the 20th Century, convention delegates in both parties tended to favor nominees who had previous experience as a senator or governor from a large state with a large number of Electoral College Votes. For reasons of political common sense, the convention delegates usually wanted a well-known national name who could also give them a head start on the number of Electoral Votes needed to win.
In the current GOP primary campaign season, Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), Ron Paul (R-Texas), and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Michigan) have debated and competed for straw poll ballots and they could possibly be joined by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) in a few weeks. In the last 200 years, a single seat in the House from a small geographic district has not been a good base to support a national campaign.
Since 1789, 19 Presidents and 33 presidential candidates served in the U.S. House at one time during their careers but only Henry Clay (1824), James A. Garfield (1880), and John Anderson (1980) ran in the general election as a sitting House member. Garfield was the only sitting House member to be elected president but he had also been elected a U.S. Senator by the Ohio state legislature prior to his Inauguration. Anderson (R-Illinois) broke from the GOP in 1980 and ran as an independent candidate but did not win a single Electoral Vote. Henry Clay was a candidate before the modern two-party system. John Quincy Adams was the only president who ran for and was elected to the House after he finished his service as president.
Several House members, including Phil Crane (R-Illinois) in 1980, ran for their party nomination but got very few delegate votes at the convention. Former Speakers Joe Cannon (R-Illinois) and Champ Clark (D-Missouri) never got off the ground and fizzled at their conventions. Former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich is running now but he has never been elected in any political sub-division larger than a House seat in Georgia and that was many years ago.
So is a single House district a credible base for a run for president? Not according to history. I am one of those who admires the leadership of Rep. Paul Ryan on economic issues but I think he would be ill-advised to run for president in 2012. No matter how smart he is, he does not have either a statewide or a national political base that would help the GOP win in November 2012.
Of the current crop of candidates in the GOP ranks, only Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) has what might be called a true traditional base, having served for ten years as governor of a large state with 38 Electoral Votes, second only to California with 55. Of the states President Obama carried in 2008, there is a very good chance he could lose Florida (29), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10) and Iowa (6) for a deficit of 101 electoral votes off his 2008 total of 365 and not enough for the 270 needed to win. Romney’s home state has only 11 Electoral Votes. So the traditional concept of a base favors Perry but no one knows what combination of national popular votes will configure to form 270 Electoral Votes in November 2012.
(Also published in Illinois Review)