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Governors Who Became President

by David J. Andersen and John Weingart
Center on the American Governor

Since its founding in 1787, the United States has had 43 presidents and over 2,300 governors. While the paths to the White House have ranged from long careers in lower levels of politics to military backgrounds to only brief prior forays in the public domain, one of the most common prior experiences has been serving as a state’s governor. Seventeen presidents* (almost 40%) had previously held office as chief executive of a state, providing them with experience in running a government bureaucracy, dealing with a legislature and responding to the judiciary.

 

Pres.
No. 
Name  Term  Gov. State  Term(s)  Elected
while Gov. 
3 Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809 Virginia 1779-1781 No
5 James Monroe 1817-1825 Virginia 1799-1802 No
8 Martin Van Buren 1837-1841 New York 1829 No
10 John Tyler 1841-1845 Virginia 1825-1826 No**
11 James K. Polk 1845-1849 Tennessee 1839-1841 No
17 Andrew Johnson 1865-1869 Tennessee 1853-1857 No**
19 Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881 Ohio 1868-1872; 1876-1877 Yes
22 Grover Cleveland 1885-1889 New York 1883-1884 Yes*
24 Grover Cleveland 1893-1897 New York 1883-1884 No*
25 William McKinley 1897-1901 Ohio 1892-1896 Yes
26 Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909 New York 1899-1900 Yes***
28 Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921 New Jersey 1911-1913 Yes
30 Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929 Massachusetts 1919-1920 Yes***
32 Franklin Roosevelt 1933-1945 New York 1929-1932 Yes
39 Jimmy Carter 1977-1981 Georgia 1971-1974 No
40 Ronald Reagan 1981-1989 California 1967-1974 No
42 Bill Clinton 1993-2001 Arkansas 1979-1980; 1983-1993 Yes
43 George W. Bush 2001-2009 Texas 1995-2000 Yes
  ________________________________________________
* Grover Cleveland, president for two non-consecutive terms, is counted as only one of the nation’s 43 presidents and one of the 17 who had been a state’s governor.
** Elected vice-president, ascended to the presidency upon the death of the president, but never elected president in his own right.
*** Elected vice president, ascended to the presidency and later elected president in own right

 

The first governor to win the White House, Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, was elected in 1800. The most recent, George W. Bush from Texas, won exactly 200 years later. While examining the 17 governors and 23 non-governors elected over that time yields no discernable pattern, potentially interesting observations can be advanced:

 

  • The 17 presidents came from ten states with New York providing four, Virginia three and Ohio and Tennessee two each. The others were from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Texas.

 

  • One Governor has followed another to the White House five times:
    • 1845, when James K. Polk (TN) succeeded John Tyler (VA);
    • 1897, when William McKinley (OH) followed Grover Cleveland (NY);
    • 1901, when Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (NY) succeeded William McKinley (OH) after his assassination;
    • 1981, when Ronald Reagan (CA) followed Jimmy Carter (GA);
    • 2001, when George W. Bush (TX) followed Bill Clinton (AR).

     

  • The two longest runs of presidents who were not governors were from:
    • 1849 to 1865 (16 years) when five non-governors served between John Tyler (VA) and Andrew Johnson (TN); and
    • 1945-1977 (32 years) when six non-governors served between Franklin Roosevelt (NY) and Jimmy Carter (GA)

     

  • Four of the six most recent presidents (66%) were governors, and Four of the 12 most recent presidents (33%) were governors
    • Governors Jimmy Carter(GA), Ronald Reagan(CA), Bill Clinton(AR) and George W. Bush(TX) were immediately preceded by:
    • Six non-governors who were president between 1945-1977:
      Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford

     

  • Two of the 17 governors elected to the presidency did not carry the state they had led:
    • James K. Polk TN) in 1844
    • Woodrow Wilson NJ) in 1916

     

  • Eight of the 17 were serving as governor when they successfully ran for president while nine had a gap between the two offices.

 

  • The first governor to seek the presidency while serving as governor was Rutherford B. Hayes OH) in 1876 followed by Grover Cleveland (NY) in 1884, William McKinley (OH) in 1896, Woodrow Wilson (NJ) in 1912, Calvin Coolidge (MA) in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt (NY) in 1932, Bill Clinton (AR) in 1992 and George W. Bush (TX) in 2000.

 

  • The nine presidents who held other positions between their governorships and their successful races for the White House included the first six to hold both jobs: Thomas Jefferson (VA) in 1800, James Monroe VA) in 1816, Martin Van Buren (NY) in 1836, William Harrison (Ind. Terr.) in 1840, James K. Polk (TN) in 1844, and Andrew Johnson (TN) who ascended in 1865, as well as Grover Cleveland (NY) in 1884, Jimmy Carter (GA) in 1976 and Ronald Reagan (CA) in 1980.

 

Brief biographies of the 17 governors who moved on to the presidency are available here.