Mark Shields: Voters prefer governors over senators for White House

Mark Shields

In the past 94 years, American voters have elected a total of two United States senators — John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama — president. By contrast, before Obama, four of the past five men elected to the White House — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — were either sitting or former governors.

Why the electorate’s preference for governors over senators? Governors have to make tough choices about how to balance the state budget, which the governor then has to persuade reluctant state legislators to pass. Senators instead make tough speeches and then issue a press release endorsing an unattainable — and unworkable — constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.

Governors, who often deal with natural disasters and public emergencies, can point to real changes in people’s lives — the opening of a new community college or jobs with employers they brought to their state. Senators, who speak in their own jargon about “lacking a quorum” or “tabling the motion to recommit” that means nothing to most Americans, represent the Congress, a universally disliked institution, and Washington, an unpopular place.

But because a senator is only one of 100 and accountable only for her or his own voting record, most voters don’t get upset when their ambitious senator misses the hearings of the Subcommittee on Weights and Measures to travel to a county convention in Iowa or to a party dinner in New Hampshire. That’s what senators do; they run for president. And it isn’t as though being in the U.S. Senate involves real work or heavy lifting.

The disadvantage for a governor — not as the party’s nominee for president in the general election but in leaving the state capitol to seek that presidential nomination by traveling to the primary and caucus states — is that the constituents, though they may take some home-state pride in all the national attention, want their governor on the job full time.

Consider New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose state’s credit rating has been downgraded nine times during his administration. By a 2-1 margin in a Quinnipiac University poll, New Jersey voters do not think Christie should run for president. And if he does, 70 percent of his constituents believe he should immediately resign as governor.

Wisconsin voters are only slightly less unenthusiastic about the fact that their governor, Scott Walker, who is at the top of many national surveys, may run for the White House. By a 3-2 margin in the most recent Public Policy Polling survey, Dairy State voters do not think Walker should run for the highest office. His job rating — according to the tally of the Wisconsin State Journal, Walker has been out of state about half the days in 2015 — has dropped to its lowest point in four years. A presidential bid by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would also be opposed by about 2 in 3 state voters.

You can hear the identical campaign case against Govs. Christie, Walker and Jindal from Republican rivals for the nomination: “Let’s listen to those who know him best, his home-state voters — who overwhelmingly do not want him to run.”

If you are the presidential nominee, it can be good to be a governor. But the real job of being governor can make it difficult to win that nomination.