The Election That Turned Governors Into Presidents

Why you should care

Because the next commander in chief could be your governor.

Asking folks to be as quiet as possible, the fast-living amateur cowboy, ex-governor and former two-term president known as the “Bull Moose” shrugged off his heavy overcoat and unbuttoned his vest to reveal a bloodstained shirt. It was October 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt was there as a Progressive Party candidate to address a standing-room only crowd at the Milwaukee Auditorium just a month before the U.S. presidential election. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot,” he said, revealing two holes on the right side of his chest as he pulled a bullet-riddled 50-page manuscript from his breast pocket — pages that, in all likelihood, kept his injuries from being fatal.

Roosevelt’s 90-minute speech — he didn’t let the bleeding from an assassination attempt stop him — was undoubtedly the most surprising turn in a whirlwind 1912 campaign that featured a rare four-party contest. It also marked a definitive turn in presidential elections in which governors stepped up as candidates, hoping to parlay their state posts into a White House residency.

Unlike members of Congress, governors don’t have to take a position on hundreds of national issues, which could come back to bite them in the campaign.

This year, 11 former or current state executives decided that “Mr. Governor” sounded an awful lot like “Mr. President.” Seven remain in the hunt, and they have, in part, Teddy to thank. Before Roosevelt took office in 1901 — succeeding William McKinley after just five months as vice president — only four presidents had run immediately after serving as governor. Once in the Oval Office, Roosevelt busted corporate trusts, battled false advertising and generally blew past the limits of the branch, which, while constitutionally questionable, got results. “Roosevelt, during his time, expanded the power of the office of the president,” says John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. “The perception of the job changed.”

Eight governors ran for president in 1912, but not all were ready for the national spotlight, says Kendrick A. Clements, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an expert on Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the New Jersey governor who won that election. Thomas Marshall, the governor of Indiana, was “a recovering alcoholic” whose acerbic wit often got him in trouble. “Someone once said that his fairy godmother cursed him with a gift for humor,” Clements says. Wilson’s last-minute victory precluded a presidency by Connecticut’s Simeon Baldwin, 71, “a complete iceberg” who would have been the country’s oldest president. “He was a talented lawyer and legal scholar, but with as much charisma as a potato,” Clements says. Teddy lost, historians say, when the conservative vote split between him and the incumbent, Republican President William H. Taft.

There are reasons governors are often pegged for higher office, presidential historians say. The obvious: They have executive experience, and it’s usually a term-limited job, so the presidency is a natural next step. If there isn’t a front-runner with national-name recognition, party elites tend to pin presidential hopes on popular state executives in large states with plenty of electoral votes, such as Florida or California. “They tend to have stature without being particularly well known outside of their states,” says Weingart. And unlike members of Congress, governors don’t have to take a position on hundreds of national issues, which could come back to bite them in the campaign.

The 1920 election was one of the most popular for governors who would be president: Eleven stepped up that year too. But if you think the 2016 campaign has been a circus, the 1920 race had 25 candidates, two more than have officially declared this year. The two candidates who emerged from that crowded field — Democrat James Cox and Republican Warren G. Harding, the winner — were the current and former governor, respectively, of a pivotal swing state: Ohio.

Governors had mixed success getting to the White House in the following decades. Plenty ran, but only a few won (former New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, was the only president ever elected to four terms). The trend returned for good, though, more than 50 years later, after voters grew distrustful of all things Washington when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. “The Congress is an inherently unpopular institution,” writes Nate Silver, a political statistician and founder of FiveThirtyEight. “Governors can escape this burden — they can run as Washington outsiders.” In modern politics, it has almost always paid off to claim distance from Capitol Hill, and five of the six presidents elected since the Watergate scandal served as governors first.

Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt set the tone for the 1912 election, with both being “seen as crucial precursors to the invigoration of the presidency,” writes Lehigh University’s Saladin Ambar, author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency. “Modern presidential power, however elusive to define, was ultimately crafted from the states up.”

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