Is History on House Members’ Side in 2012?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 10, 2011 · 11:01 AM EDT

Even longtime political analysts sometimes fall into a rut, and that’s where I’ve been in thinking about whether a Member of the House of Representatives can be nominated for president.

“No,” has been my knee-jerk reaction, falling back on the time-tested explanation that House members don’t get nominated by major parties, and only one president has ever been elected directly from the House. That was James A. Garfield (R), who had already been elected to the Senate — though never sworn in — when voters picked him to hold the nation’s top job.

But with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann expected to enter the GOP race, and growing speculation that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) might also eventually jump in, it’s time for me to reassess.

The last major party candidates nominated while they were in the House or just after they had left the House were William Jennings Bryan (D) in 1896, Garfield in 1880 and Horace Greeley (Whig) in 1872.

As a general rule, few House Members run for president, and those who do usually fare poorly. (By comparison, Senators frequently run for president, with a record four of them seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008.)

During the past 50 years, only a few sitting House Members have been regarded as serious contenders for a presidential nod: Democratic Reps. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) in 1988 and 2004 and Mo Udall (Ariz.) in 1976 and Republican Rep. Jack Kemp in 1988. Illinois Rep. John Anderson ran a credible race for the GOP nomination in 1980 until dropping out to run for president as an Independent.

Other House Members have sought a major party nomination, but they have usually been either long shots hoping lightning would strike, such as California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter (2008) and Illinois Republican Rep. Phil Crane (1980), or ideologues with a vocal but very narrow following, such as Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (2004 and 2008), California Republican Rep. Bob Dornan (1996) and Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul (in 2008 and again in 2012).

Another House Budget Committee chairman, then-Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), formed a long-shot exploratory committee to run for president in February 1999 but abandoned his bid just five months later and endorsed George W. Bush.

From a practical point of view, few House Members have national visibility or fundraising ability to mount a serious run for the White House. According to a 1999 report from CNN’s John King, one of the reasons Kasich dropped out in the summer of that year was that he had raised just $1.6 million and had transferred another $1.4 million from his House account. Bush, then governor of Texas and the frontrunner, had raised $36 million.

Party leaders are somewhat different, of course, because they can become national political figures and have more fundraising potential than the average House Member. But by the time someone reaches Speaker, Majority Leader or Minority Leader in the House, he or she often has such a commitment to the institution and a focus on legislative leadership that running for president isn’t a consideration.

“People who work their way up the House ladder tend to be careerists. Most wouldn’t give that up for the mere chance to be president,” said political scientist Sandy Maisel, Director of Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs.

During the past 80 years, only Gephardt and Rep. John Nance Garner (D-Texas) used their positions in the House leadership to mount effective presidential campaigns. Gephardt served as House Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995 and as House Minority Leader from 1995 to January 2003, when he stepped down from that position to prepare to run for president.

Garner ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932 as the sitting Speaker. He went to the Democratic National Convention with substantial support, but he ultimately endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt in exchange for Roosevelt selecting him as the vice presidential nominee.

Because most House Members come from relatively homogeneous districts, they have built records that fit their districts — both in terms of ideology and interest. Many have also focused on bringing home federal dollars to their districts or on helping constituents with personal matters, rather than on national themes.

As a result, they have been less likely to have the ability to appeal to a broad range of voters or the knowledge of a broad array of issues, as presidential nominees need to. Without the executive experience that comes from being governor or the gravitas that comes with serving as one of 100 in the Senate, House Members rarely have the stature to be regarded as potential presidents.

But times have changed, and some House Members now have national constituencies, possibly eliminating some of the hurdles to a serious presidential bid.

The growth of cable television, with its ideological programming, gives House Members a platform that elevates them as national figures. Bachmann, for example, can get on television as much as almost any Senator or governor can, as can Ryan, who has potentially broader appeal than his Minnesota House colleague.

Many House Members have a different view of their role than rank-and-file Members once did. The House GOP class of 2010, for example, appears more focused on national matters, such as the deficit and spending, and less on bringing federal dollars back to their districts or ingratiating themselves with particular constituency groups.

This change in perspective might help them develop a national following (and a national fundraising base) or build a record with broader appeal, at least geographically.

But House Members still need to overcome a stature gap, at least compared with governors and Senators. The House continues to be regarded as a lower rung on the political ladder, and until that changes, most House Members will have a harder time being taken seriously as contenders for the White House.

“There still is a stature gap, but the media allows some House Members to overcome it,” Maisel said.

And that’s reason enough for me to at least modify my assumption about House Members running for president, particularly if it is someone with potentially broad appeal.