Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tom Vilsack, We Hardly Knew Ye

The departure of Tom Vilsack from the Presidential field means that we now have a Presidential trivia question to rival "who was Ross Perot's running mate in 1992?" (Answer: James "Who am I? Why am I here?" Stockdale). The new question, of course: Who was first to announce his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President? What else can we take away from Vilsack's ill-fated campaign that barely was? Herewith, three small lessons:

1) If your name is "Vilsack," you start in electoral politics with a large disadvantage. Kudos to the former Governor for advancing as far as he did. (No, I don't have a good explanation for why "Obama" is less of a handicap. It just is, somehow.)

2) The favorite son phenomenon is basically a thing of the past. Remember 1992, when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin won the Iowa caucuses because the other candidates didn't bother to campaign there? Remember how Harkin's campaign completely fizzled afterwards? This should have been a clue to Vilsack that he was doomed from the start: Had he won in his home state, the victory would have been dismissed in the way that Harkin's was; had he lost, that would have been proof positive that his campaign was DOA.

3) There may be no logical stopping point to the ever-earlier start of the Presidential campaign. Vilsack quit because he couldn't raise serious money, given the crowded field. Partly that was due to domination by more charismatic candidates (read Obama) who didn't start any earlier than he did, but it was also partly due to the fact that other leading candidates started their fundraising campaigns much earlier. John Edwards has been running more or less since election day 04, and Hilary Clinton has been running more or less since election day 2000 (some might even say earlier). To the extent that the fundraising drives the schedule, even sensible reforms in the primary schedule (of the sort urged here by my co-blogger Craig Albert) won't affect the start date of the race (although they could affect who among the survivors of the "money primary" wins the actual nomination). Campaign finance reform could alter the dynamic, but it would likely take reforms too strong for the Supreme Court to uphold. Bottom Line: Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton should get started raising funds for their 2028 runs asap.

14 comments:

egarber said...

In some ways, I think this makes Bill Richardson the winner, as he becomes uniquely postured to run on a governor's experience.

Whatever our thoughts about Obama, Hillary,et al, I think it's inherently harder to run for president as a senator, in part because it's so easy to distort votes during campaigns.

But maybe it's more than that. Maybe that difficulty is an expression of the system's brilliance somehow; maybe it reflects an innate framework bias toward executive experience. In this sense, it's kind of an insurance policy on separation of powers.

Seth said...

You're right, if you're running against an incumbent President or Vice President, but when it's an open field like it is this year, it's not nearly as important. Check your facts.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Getting more specific to the question at hand, I'm going backwards to find presidential elections where no sitting president or vice president was the party nominee.

Here are the last two as I see them (and as always, I welcome corrections):

1952: Eisenhower (a General) wins the presidency.

1928: Hoover (secretary of Commerce) wins the presidency.

So at least in these two "open field" instances, executives won.

egarber said...

To Seth:

As my general argument is that executive experience is an advantage, I'll throw out these facts from various sources (I welcome corrections):

1. Only 15 senators have become president (not all through elections). And only two were sitting senators at the time: Kennedy and Harding. Kennedy won against a
sitting VP, so that example is neutral on the "open season" component.

2. All but 7 presidents have had executive experience of some sort -- via governorships, as vice president, or through the military.

To me, there's something underlying in all this. And though you may be correct that it's less pronounced in an open field, I still think executive experience weighs more.

On the other hand, today money is likely distorting any inherent advantages to one degree or another.

Craig J. Albert said...

Adrienne Koch argues that coming in as a governor is a big plus because you don't have a voting record, and the procedural nits of the opponents of senators with ample fodder for comparative campaigning.

Fifteen senators have gone on to become president, but I'm not sure whether that's a lot or a little. If I were to guess, the cohort of senators and governors/ex-governors available at any moment is probably close to equal, given term limits on governorships in many states, and the fact that there were until recently a number of states with a two-year governor's term. You can also downplay the appeal of pre-1914 senators, as they were in effect appointees of governors.

Who else have we had as presidents? Don't discount war heroes: we've had plenty of them, both as presidents and as runners-up. (Eisenhower was the most recent successful candidate, but he joined the ranks of Washington, Jackson, Taylor, WH Harrison, Grant, and T Roosevelt, a list that doesn't even include those who had substantial military service but didn't make their marks on the national psyche as soldiers or sailors.)

Any story about experience in office also needs to deal with several sea changes in the presidential nominating and campaigning system. The primaries as the dominant force, for example, is of relatively recent vintage. The Democratic Party started to move the lion's share of delegates to be allocated to the winners of state primaries and caucuses beginning after the 1968 election, and then piecemeal adopted reforms like the abandonment of winner-take-all primaries. The Republican Party was a little slower to reallocation, but ultimately adopted many of the same reforms. In the old days -- read pre-1968 -- party regulars (state and national committee chairs) held or swayed blocks of delegate votes, which enabled coalitions to form. It was those coalitions that formed the tickets, not because they were looking for particular types of political experience, but because they were trying to fashion tickets that would win elections. The primary system that we have today doesn't allow for a reasoned process in forming tickets.

On that note, I'll be happy to close here and offer to tell a story as to why the smoke-filled room (today, I think it would be the chai latte-filled room) or the primary voters opted for any given ticket, and why in retrospect they turned out to be either good or bad guessers.

Craig J. Albert said...

On Favorite Progeny

Michael is of course correct that favorite sons and daughters are a thing of the past, but the dynamic explains it. The point of the favorite son candidacy was to take a candidate into the convention with a small group of fervent delegates, so that when the initial ballots were inconclusive, the favorite son had both a group willing to push the candidate as a compromise and had his own influence to affect compromises in favor of others. Now, it is unlikely that there will be a brokered convention, so both of the rationales for a favorite son candidacy have disappear. The only arguable reason for launching such a candidacy, then, is to increase name recognition in the hope that you become a credible choice for the vice-presidential nomination, since recent history shows that the VP candidates get picked by the winning candidate out of the also-rans.

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