Government

Fact Checker: Do governors stand a better chance against incumbent presidents?

Former Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper makes the case

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks Aug. 10 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks Aug. 10 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Introduction

“If you go back and look over the past 120 years, we have never defeated an incumbent president with a sitting senator — with any senator. It has always been governors or sometimes former governors.”

Source: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, speaking Aug. 10 at the “Political Soapbox” stage at the Iowa State Fair. Hickenlooper announced Thursday via Twitter that he has ended his campaign.

Analysis

The top four front-runners as identified by polling in a large 2020 Democratic field are senators or former senators, including former Delaware senator and vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Several other senators are in the field of candidates, too.

Hickenlooper was among at least three current or former governors in the race, also including Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

He contended a governor is better positioned to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.

“That’s because governors have to make the final decision,” he said. “The buck stops on our desks. We have to balance the budget every year. ... When we propose solutions to problems we have to know how we are going to pay for it.”

Since 1900, there have been 19 challenges to an incumbent president and only five successful ones. In each case of unseating the incumbent, the challenger was a governor or former governor.

William Taft was defeated by Woodrow Wilson, who was governor of New Jersey, in 1912. Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was governor of New York, in 1932; Gerald Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter, governor of Georgia, in 1976; Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, in 1980; and George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas, in 1992.

In that same time, four senators have challenged an incumbent and all were unsuccessful.

Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964; George McGovern, a senator from South Dakota, lost to Richard Nixon in 1972; Bob Dole, a senator from Kansas, lost to Bill Clinton in 1996; and John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, lost to George W. Bush in 2004.

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Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984, had also served as a senator from Minnesota but more recently had served as Carter’s vice president from 1977 to 1981.

Fact Checker reviewed a list provided by Hickenlooper’s campaign and verified the data through Encyclopaedia Britannica and History.com.

But senators had successfully challenged incumbent presidents before 1900.

Former Indiana Sen. Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888; former Pennsylvania Sen. James Buchanan defeated Millard Fillmore in 1856; former Ohio Sen. William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren in 1840; and former Tennessee Sen. Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams in 1828.

It is important to note governors or former governors have lost against incumbents as well, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was defeated by Barack Obama in 2012, and former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who was defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Conclusion

In the past 120 years — or since 1900 — former or sitting senators nominated for president have challenged the incumbent four times and lost each time.

Meanwhile, former or sitting governors defeated the incumbent five times, although governors have also lost to incumbents as well.

Hickenlooper is correct in his statements. We score this an A.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli of The Gazette.

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