Sabato's Crystal Ball

From the House to the White House? Not So Fast

Thomas F. Schaller, Guest Columnist August 11th, 2011

Michele Bachmann is surging. Newt Gingrich is struggling. And, as usual, Ron Paul is stirring the pot. The 2012 Republican presidential primary field is crowded — specifically with current or former members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Indeed, Bachmann and Paul may very well be among the top performers at Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll in Ames.

However, no matter what happens at the straw poll, House candidates have a horrible track record of winning major-party presidential nominations. And if history is any guide, none of these Republicans has much of a chance of winning the presidency. The last incumbent House member to win the presidency was James Garfield in 1880.

Is there any modern precedent in either party for such a House-heavy slate of presidential aspirants in the same cycle? What does it say about the Republicans that their field has so many politicians whose highest elective office is the House of Representatives? Do any of the four House candidates — counting Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s longshot bid — have a realistic shot of being the 2012 GOP nominee?

A fair number of presidential candidates who served in the House at some point during their political careers have gone on to win major-party nominations (Al Gore, John McCain) and even the presidency (George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy). But history says that to reach the White House candidates must first graduate to at least the Senate and probably the vice presidency — and often the first in order to be later considered for the second. Gerald Ford’s last elective office was the House, but his career arc as the only president not elected to at least the vice presidency is an aberration.

In fact, recent history actually suggests that losing an early-career bid to win a seat in the House of Representatives may be the best way to clear a path to the Oval Office. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the three most recent presidents probably saved their political careers from dead-ending in the House by losing: Bill Clinton (AR-3) in 1974; George W. Bush (TX-19) in 1978; and Barack Obama (IL-1) in 2000.

House members are more likely to be tapped as vice presidential running mates. But lately, the unfortunate fate of House veep candidates has been to serve on the undercard of losing tickets. Hailing from New York, a state once distinguished for producing American presidents, has been a special curse. In 1996, Bob Dole chose supply-side darling and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, an ex-rep; Walter Mondale helped dent the presidential glass ceiling in 1984 by selecting Rep. Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate; and Rep. William Miller was Barry Goldwater’s oft-forgotten vice presidential pick in 1964. Dole, Mondale and Goldwater all lost, of course, the latter two by landslide margins.

In the modern era, several House candidates have run decent, if ultimately failed campaigns, including Republicans like Kemp and Phil Crane (IL), or Democrats like Mo Udall (AZ) and Dick Gephardt (MO). In 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (NY) defied historical stereotypes by being the first black woman to make a major party bid for the presidency.

But the title of most influential House presidential candidate in the post-war era probably belongs to Illinois’ John Anderson. In his 1980 independent bid after losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, the moderate Republican managed to shave 7% from what would have been an even wider popular vote margin for Reagan over Jimmy Carter. Anderson’s campaign was in many respects the last gasp of the old Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party that lost the intraparty fight to the nascent Goldwater-Reagan wing.

Bottom line? Despite some significant and even historic House presidential candidates, there is no modern precedent for the Bachmann-Gingrich-McCotter-Paul quartet running in the same cycle for the same party’s presidential nomination.

What, if any, are the political or electoral implications of the GOP’s House-heavy 2012 presidential field?

In the end, perhaps none. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains the favorite, and if he wins, the House-tilt to the 2012 GOP field may be quickly forgotten — except and until the vice presidential sweepstakes begins in earnest, at which point Bachmann could emerge as a serious veep contender. (One wonders if she would accept the offer from Romney.) But even if none of the House presidential candidates — or House non-candidates, such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — makes it onto the ticket, so much of the current energy and momentum for national Republicans emanates from the House.

The House is the only institution the GOP controls in Washington right now, and as I have written elsewhere, Speaker John Boehner leads what is arguably the most House-tilted GOP congressional delegation in the party’s history. Ryan is the party’s leading policy figure. And as the debt limit showdown proved, the Tea Party flexes far greater muscle on the House side of the Capitol.

All that said, even if none of the four House contenders appears on the 2012 ticket, the “House-ification” of Republican presidential politics is undeniable. Paul continues to press the case for a more isolationist (and presumably less costly) foreign policy and military policy. House Tea Party caucus leader Bachmann has forced other candidates to adopt hard-line positions on the debt ceiling, domestic spending cuts and taxes. And whatever his faults as a candidate, Gingrich still retains his brash, wonky capacity to challenge the other candidates on matters of both history and policy. Only McCotter’s impact has, thus far, been negligible.

The point is that while none of these four House contenders may win, the eventual winner will have to contend with some if not all of them.

So which of these four House contenders has the best chance of being the Republican standard-bearer in 2012, or at least getting tapped to be the vice presidential running mate?

With all due respect to the Michigander, McCotter is probably a non-starter. Of the remaining three, Gingrich is arguably the biggest name, but so far the former speaker has run the most disorganized campaign of the three. A few years ago Bachmann was a virtual unknown, but she has thus far run the most inspired campaign. In his second bid for the White House, Paul falls somewhere between Gingrich and Bachmann: The Texas libertarian continues to hold together his base of isolationist goldbuggers, but his solid floor is offset by his consistent but low ceiling of high single-digit support.

For a variety of reasons, Bachmann is ideally positioned to play kingmaker. As the only female candidate in the post-Palin GOP, she cannot be ignored by a party that has struggled to attract women voters. As the candidate most beloved by the party’s Tea Party wing, she cannot be ignored in fiscal debates. And as a social conservative, she definitely cannot be ignored by Romney — given his historical vicissitudes on abortion and gay marriage — should he win the nomination. Barring a late Palin entry, Bachmann is that rare House candidate who could play the spoiler in the presidential race. As the golden boy of the GOP’s tax-cut wing during the GOP’s uncertain, post-“read my lips” era, the only Republican in the post-Anderson era to wield similar influence was Kemp in 1996.

James Garfield needn’t stir in his grave, for none of the House Republican candidates is likely to be the 2012 nominee, no less win the White House. But House members — and Bachmann in particular — are having a greater impact on the Republican presidential contest than in any cycle in a very long time.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun.