Governors and the White House

In addition to the information below, also see: Governors and the Presidency: How They Campaign, How They Govern, by Walter Shapiro and Jill Lawrence, a report commissioned by the Eagleton Center on the American Governor in 2012.

 

Of the 78 Americans who have served as President, Vice President or both since the nation was formed, 27 or just over one-third had been governor of a state. This includes 17 of the 44 presidents (39%) and 16 of the 48 vice presidents (33%).

Over the 58 national elections held to date, governors have captured a total of 55 presidential nominations. Twenty-seven were elected and, most recently with former Governor Romney’s defeat in 2012, 29 have lost. If the five third party candidates are discounted, however, one can say that 53% of the major party nominees who had been governors were victorious.

In all but 12 of the national elections, at least one governor has been on the November ballot as a presidential or vice presidential nominee. Two governors were on the ballot for 18 elections, and three nominated in two elections – 1912 and 1916.

Many other governors who sought the presidency or hoped for the vice presidency were not nominated. Some ran major national campaigns, while others hoped status as their state’s favorite son might lead to victory, and many more launched trial balloons that were little noticed and quickly punctured.

The large field that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney bested to capture the 2012 Republican presidential nomination included five other current or former governors – Jon Huntsman (UT), Gary Johnson (NM), Tim Pawlenty (MN), Rick Perry (TX), and Buddy Roemer (LA) – as well as intense speculation about at least four others – Haley Barbour (MS), Jeb Bush (FL), Chris Christie (NJ), and Mike Huckabee (AR).

The 2016 primary races included even more governors. Eleven current or former governors officially declared themselves candidates – Jeb Bush (R-FL), Lincoln Chafee (D-RI), Chris Christie (R-NJ), Jim Gilmore (R-VA), Mike Huckabee (R-AR), Bobby Jindal (R-LA), John Kasich (R-OH), Martin O’Malley (D-MD), George Pataki (R-NY), Rick Perry (R-TX), and Scott Walker (R-WI).

The 2020 primary race showed a different trend, however. Only four candidates with gubernatorial experience entered the Democratic primary: sitting Governors Steve Bullock (MT) and Jay Inslee (WA) and former Governors John Hickenlooper (CO) and Deval Patrick (MA). Bullock, Hickenlooper, and Inslee all withdrew from the race before the first primary, with Hickenlooper choosing instead to run for a U.S. Senate seat while Inslee will seek reelection as governor. Patrick entered the race in late 2019 and and announced he would end his campaign on February 12, 2020. Two former governors also announced they would run against incumbent President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination: Mark Sanford (SC) and Bill Weld (MA). Neither posed a serious threat to Trump, however. Finally, former Governor Lincoln Chafee (RI) announced that he would seek the Libertarian nomination. It appears that, for the second straight presidential election, neither major party will nominate a candidate with gubernatorial experience.

Governors Who Became President

by David J. Andersen and John Weingart

 

Since its founding in 1787, the United States has had 44 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 to 1977 (32 years) when six non-governors served between Franklin Roosevelt (NY) and Jimmy Carter (GA).
    • Note that a governor has not served as president from 2008 to 2020 (12 years), a streak that is unlikely to change in the 2020 election.
  • Neither current President Donald Trump nor his immediate predecessor Barack Obama had gubernatorial experience. However, four of the seven most recent presidents (57%) were governors, and Four of the 13 most recent presidents (31%) were governors:
    • Governors Jimmy Carter(GA), Ronald Reagan(CA), Bill Clinton(AR) and George W. Bush(TX) served consecutively from 1981-2009. They 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.

Governors Nominated But Defeated for President

by Amy Zacks
Contributor to the Center on the American Governor
(updated February 2015 by Kristoffer Shields)

 

While 17 sitting or former governors have served as President of the United States (including Presidents John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the White House), 23 sitting or former governors have received a party nomination but were then defeated in November. This includes:

  • Three incumbent presidents who lost their bids for reelection:
    • Martin Van Buren* (NY) in 1840
    • Grover Cleveland (NY) in 1888
    • Jimmy Carter (GA) in 1980
  • Two former presidents who had been out of office four or eight years:
    • Martin Van Buren* (NY)
    • Theodore Roosevelt (NY)
  • Three governors who were unsuccessful nominees twice:
    • Martin Van Buren* (NY) in 1840 and 1848
    • Thomas Dewey (NY) in 1944 and 1948
    • Adlai Stevenson (IL) in 1952 and 1956
      • *Note that Martin Van Buren is in all of these first three groups
  • One who was elected president four years later:
    • William Henry Harrison (IN Terr)
  • Four who lost under a different party affiliation than they had used in prior elections:
    • Martin Van Buren (NY)
    • Theodore Roosevelt (NY)
    • Strom Thurmond (SC)
    • George Wallace (AL)

Stated another way, sitting and former governors have received a party nomination and then lost the general election a total of 26 times. This includes 1848 and 1948, both years when two governors suffered this outcome; Martin Van Buren (NY) as a Free Soil candidate and Lewis Cass (MI Territory) running as the Democrat in 1848, and Thomas Dewey (NY) as the Republican nominee and Strom Thurmond (SC) running on the States’ Rights Dixiecrat ticket in 1948.

Two additional candidates who lost their bids for the presidency –DeWitt Clinton (NY) in 1812 and George McClellan (NJ) in 1864 – would later move on to be governor or their own states.

Over these 26 national defeats by 23 governors:

  • Eleven occurred while the nominee was serving as his or her state’s governor (including Thomas E. Dewey (NY) twice)
  • Fifteen occurred after the nominee was no longer governor (including three who were incumbent Presidents who lost their bids for reelection: Martin Van Buren (1840), Grover Cleveland (1888), and Jimmy Carter (1980); Van Buren ran and lost again in 1848).
  • Two served as a governor before and after running for President (John C. Fremont (AZ) and George Wallace (AL))
  • Of the 26 times governors received a party nomination and were then defeated for president, only three states are represented more than once:
    • New York, with 13 nominees including Martin Van Buren and Thomas Dewey twice each
    • Illinois, with two races by Adlai Stevenson
    • Massachusetts with Michael Dukakis (1988) and Mitt Romney (2012)
  • Four winning presidential candidates, including three who had been governors, defeated a governor in two elections:
    • James Madison beat NY Governors George and Dewitt Clinton
    • Woodrow Wilson (NJ) defeated Theodore Roosevelt (NY) in 1912 and Charles Evan Hughes (NY) in 1916
    • Franklin Roosevelt (NY) beat Alfred Landon (KN) in 1936 and Thomas Dewey (NY) in 1944
    • Dwight Eisenhower won over Adlai Stevenson (IL) in 1952 and 1956
  • The two governors to most recently win a presidential nomination and lose the general election were both from Massachusetts:
    • Michael Dukakis (D) lost to George H.W. Bush (1988)
    • Mitt Romney (R) lost to Barack Obama (2012)
  • The most recent victories by a governor in a presidential election were:
    • 1992 and 1996 when Bill Clinton (AR) was elected and reelected
    • 2000 and 2004 when George W. Bush (TX) was elected and reelected

Governors Running for President: While in Office or Afterwards

 

It is common to see governors among those exploring possible candidacies. While many eventually opt not to run or fail to gain their party’s nomination, governors have captured a total of 55 presidential nominations. One or more has been on the November ballot for president or vice president in all but 12 of the country’s national election cycles.

Of the 43 presidents to date, 17 had experience as a governor before taking over the presidency. The first was Thomas Jefferson elected in 1800 and the most recent was George W. Bush, elected 200 years later.

More detailed information on governors in the White House is available here.

Several in this group – John Tyler (VA), Andrew Johnson (TN), Theodore Roosevelt (NY) and Calvin Coolidge (MA) – were vice-presidents who ascended when the president died.

The remaining 13 governors were all elected president. Almost half of them – six of 13 – were serving as governor when they ran for and attained the White House. This includes:

  • Rutherford B. Hayes (OH) in 1876
  • Grover Cleveland (NY) in 1884
  • Woodrow Wilson (NJ) in 1912
  • Franklin Roosevelt (NY) in 1932
  • Bill Clinton (AR) in 1992
  • George W. Bush (TX) in 2000

The other seven sought the presidency after their gubernatorial term(s) had ended:

  • Thomas Jefferson (VA) in 1800
  • James Monroe (VA) in 1816
  • Martin Van Buren (NY) in 1836
  • James Polk (TN) in 1844
  • William McKinley (OH) in 1896
  • Jimmy Carter (GA) in 1976
  • Ronald Reagan (CA) in 1980
Governors and the Vice Presidency