In a piece about the political aspirations of Texas senator Ted Cruz, Jonathan Bernstein offered a shorthand way of measuring whether someone is a legitimate Presidential contender.
There are really two tests for whether someone is a viable candidate for a presidential nomination. The candidate needs to have conventional qualifications, and with (by then) four years in the Senate, Cruz qualifies, albeit just barely. The candidate must also be within the mainstream of his or her party when it comes to public policy.
Going by past Presidents and presidential nominees, conventional qualifications refers to Senators, Governors, prominent members of the House of Representatives, cabinet members and notable generals. But it seems to me that it’s entirely possible for someone else to win either the Democratic or Republican nomination. And in a two party system with relative parity, any major-party nominee has a good chance at the presidency.
There is some precedent for the unprecedented. In the 2012 cycle, Herman Cain briefly led Republican polls. His campaign collapsed when a woman he met with on a weekly basis claimed that she was his mistress, although he had also made a few gaffes. My guess is that his resume was interesting enough (businessman, CEO of the National Restaurant Association, senior economic advisor to Dole, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City) that he could have gotten the nomination, if not for those screw-ups which another businessman running for public office might not have done.
In 1996, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes won a combined 32% of the Republican primary vote. Buchanan was a Nixon speechwriter and Reagan communications director. Steve Forbes was best known as the Editor-in-Chief of a business magazine his grandfather had founded, although he had advised New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman on tax policy. Neither had conventional qualifications for the highest office in the land.
George HW Bush was a sitting Vice President when he got the Republican party’s nomination in 1988, although he had done pretty well in the presidential primary eight years later. At that point, he had served two terms in Congress as well as a notable career in the oil industry, and brief stints as CIA Director, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China (essentially an unofficial Ambassador) and Ambassador to the United Nations. His two bids for statewide office had been unsuccessful, and he hadn’t held a cabinet-level position, so his resume was certainly atypical when he ran in 1980, and won the Iowa caucus.
What constitutes a conventional candidate can change based on who has won in the past. Before 1992, small state governor might not have been considered enough, but then Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency, on the strength of his tenure as executive of a state with 6 electoral votes. He wasn’t the first to get a major party nomination, as Kansas Governor Alf Landon had won the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 1936. However, that was a really bad time for the party (Landon was the only Republican Governor reelected in 1934) and he went on to lose in one of the biggest landslides in presidential history. The next Republican presidential nominee was Wendell Wilkie, a corporate lawyer who won the nomination over Manhattan District Attorney Tom Dewey, so this was a time when politicians with unconventional resumes went on to win nominations. Landon lost with 8 electoral votes to FDR’s 523, while Wilkie managed to win 82 electoral votes, neither of which boded well for establishing a precedent for presidential contenders without the usual background. After Clinton’s win, small state Governors like Howard Dean and Mike Huckabee had to be taken a little more seriously when they made the case for a promotion to national office.
It’s been a long time since someone who was selected from the House of Representatives, but there have been credible bids by Congressmen before, notably Dick Gephardt in 1988 and 2004 as well as Mo Udall in 1976. Cabinet members seem to have several problems in presidential nominations. In some cases, they’ve never held elected office before. The Vice President has become more prominent, the obvious nominee if the term-limited President is reasonably popular. And in the nominations in which the sitting Vice President was unable to seek the presidency (Barkley was in his 70s, Cheney had heart trouble) the president was so unpopular that it would be a disadvantage to have worked most recently in his administration. But this doesn’t mean that a cabinet member would not be considered conventionally qualified.
One takeaway is that political journalists might benefit from looking at people who don’t have the backgrounds of previous presidential nominees, as these guys could still have an impact. This does mean that there are a lot more people to track of, and each individual is less likely to have an impact. If journalists keep an eye on twenty or so governors, senators, and prominent congressmen making the moves to launch a presidential bid, it’s likely to include the eventual nominee, as well as the most prominent primary runner-ups. They might have to keep an eye on dozens of politically active business leaders and lesser-known political figures to guarantee that they notice the next Herman Cain or Bill Clinton, if this is even a race in which someone who doesn’t match the template for previous Presidents can be a viable contender.