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Burden: United States Senators as presidential candidates

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Burden. 2002. United States Senators as presidential candidates. PSQ.


Despite the popular view of Senators as natural presidential candidates, Senators do a remarkably poor job of capturing their party's nomination and winning presidential elections. Governors, on the other hand, fare much better. These results are statistically significant. Burden spends the bulk of his paper considering four possible explanations for these findings.

Four possible explanations

Authority and the Issues

Senators are constantly forced to declare their positions on roll-call votes. Governors, on the other hand, can set their own agenda and can remain strategically ambivalent. Moreover, success in the Senate requires lots of negotiation and few opportunities for credit-claiming; success for governors, on the other hand, providers clearer policy outcomes to take credit for.


  • Governors are expected to know how to be executives (better than Senators can be)
  • Governors are perceived as outsiders (unlike Senators)
  • Senators have more credibility on national issues

Office Structure

  • Level of investment: Because most governors serve four-year terms and are limited to only one or two terms, governors know that they must leave office at the end of their lame duck term. Senators, on the other hand, serve unlimited six-year terms. Thus, governors have every incentive to fully commit themselves to a run for the presidency; they have nothing to lose from doing so and everything to win. Senators, on the other hand, are more likely to merely "test the waters" and retreat to their safe Senate seats. Senators do not want to fully invest in a race or they risk, like Dole, not having a seat to return to if they lose.
  • Campaign skills: Senators have a huge incumbency advantage, but this might actually hurt them; by the time they run for the presidency, it's been a long time since they ran a persuasive, competitive campaign. Governors, on the other hand, have less incumbency advantage; moreover, their most competitive campaign (when the won the governorship) was quite recent. Thus, governors are likely to have better campaign skills and more timely messages than Senators.
  • Campaign resources: Most governors convert their (hierarchical) campaign staff into a gubernatorial staff. It's not difficult to convert these staff back over to being a campaign staff. Senators, on the other hand, share many of their legislative staff and resources with committees and other Senators, making such a conversion difficult.

Candidate Pool

Though we might think there are more Senators (100) than governors (50) who can run for the presidency, we must examine former office holders--and there are surely far more former govenors (due to term limits) than former Senators. Thus, there is a bigger pool of former governors than of former Senators, so it makes sense that there might be better potential candidates among (former or current) governors than among Senators.

Conclusions about the four explanations

  • The first two are weakest
  • The latter two are better

Clearer connections to the investment and ambition theory.