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The Curse of the Congressman: Some Facts

The general consensus when it comes to picking Presidential or Vice-Presidential running mates is to steer clear of members of the House. The reason is that they are generally unknown outside their geographic district and have to define themselves on a statewide stage (if running for Senate or Governor) or even on the national stage (if running for President or Vice President). Given the state of today’s politics, the opportunity to have that definition done by the opposing party is a real possibility. Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate made me look into this alleged curse to see if it holds any validity. While it is true that a Congressman has not appeared on a ticket since 1984- Geraldine Ferraro- the sample size of the tickets is not as small as one would believe.

You have to look at both parties separately since the modern conception of the Democratic Party dates back to 1828. The Republican Party is newer and dates back to 1856. The first example of a Congressman being on the Democratic ticket was in 1836 when Martin Van Buren ran with New York Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson and won only to have that same ticket suffer a defeat in 1840. Of course, in that election we do not count Johnson as a “congressman” because he was at that point Vice President. In 1848, Lewis Cass lost with former Congressman from Kentucky William O. Butler, but eight years later, Patrick Buchanan won with a former Congressman, John Breckinridge. This was followed by a string of losses until 1892 when Grover Cleveland won with former Illinois Congressman, Adlai Stevenson I. Again, a string of losses occurred until the last time a Democrat won with a Congressman on the ticket- Franklin roosevelt with John Nance Garner in 1932. The last time a Congressman ran on a ticket for the Democrats was in 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale.

Overall for the Democrats, when a current or former Congressman ran on the ticket as President or Vice President, they won four of those 14 contests. Removing the Presidential nominee, the record is 4 of 13 cases (Horace Greeley, a former Congressman, ran for President and lost in 1872). When a sitting Congressman was on the ticket as the Vice Presidential choice, the Democrat’s record is 2 wins and 2 losses, or 50%. They were the aforementioned Garner and Johnson. Obviously, Ferraro was one loser while George Pendleton (who ran with George McLellan) lost in 1864.

For the Republican Party, the story is a little different. There are only five instances (before the Ryan pick) of a Congressman current or former being on the ticket. In fact, they were always current Congressman and all of them were Vice Presidential candidates. The exception ( being a former member of the House) was Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The only sitting member of the House to be elected to the Presidency was a Republican in the form of James Garfield in 1880.

As far as Republican Congressmen running as Vice President, there are four cases. In only one instance did the ticket lose. That was the most recent example when Barry Goldwater ran with New York Congressman William Miller in 1964. The instances of electoral success were, in order: Schuyler Colfax in 1868 (with Ulysses S. Grant), William Wheeler in 1876 (with Rutherford B. Hayes) and James Sherman in 1908 (with William Howard Taft). All of these electoral successes involved sitting members of Congress, not former members.

Regardless of party, when a sitting Congressman ran as Vice President, the record is seven wins for the ticket versus one loss- pretty damn good odds. Since 1900, however, the record is 2 wins and 2 losses. Obviously, Congressmen as Vice Presidential running mates was more popular in the 1800s.

Part of this is historical as the role, stature and method of selecting a running mate has changed. Originally, and still sometimes today, the selection reflects geographical or ideological balance on the ticket. It was not until 1940 when FDR became the first Presidential nominee to announce his preference for Vice President. Each party has done so since with one exception- Adlai Stevenson in 1956 left it to his party’s convention to choose his running mate. That is one major change.

In that way, the selection of a running mate says something about the man at the top of the ticket. What does the selection of Paul Ryan tell us? To me, it says that Romney is going all in on this election and framing it as one where the future of America is at stake under another four years of Barack Obama. To the Democrats, Paul Ryan is a lightning rod because of his Road Map for America and his budget along with entitlement reform ideas. We will hear about how the Republicans under a Romney/Ryan Administration will set out to “destroy Social Security” or “destroy Medicare” as we know it. Of course, the ticket can always point out that at least the Republicans had the guts to actually pass a budget. They can also point out and should point out that without fundamental reforms to entitlements, Social Security or Medicare will cease to exist as we know it any way!

And unlike most of the other Congressmen chosen in the past, Paul Ryan has been a national figure since he first released his Road Map and ran up the ranks of the Republican Party in the House. No “introduction” to the national media is necessary. He has been a principled mainstay on the political talk show circuit and has been steadfast in his message. It is not necessarily one of doom and gloom because he expresses the optimism that if we do something now to get our fiscal house in order, we stand a greater chance of being a great nation in the future. But with each passing year of the same old Democratic/liberal non-fixes, those chances dwindle. We have not reached the point of no return, but we speed up our trajectory to that point with another four years of Barack Obama.

I personally praise Mitt Romney for this choice as his running mate. He will bring enthusiasm and hopefully intelligent dialogue to the race with ideas and programs and some specifics to get this country to where it once was, where it should be, and where it has the potential to go. The “new norm” of meager job growth and 8% unemployment, of less take home pay, and government-mandated regulations of every aspect of our lives is not what this country should be about. This is the most serious and important election in my life time and Mitt Romney just put an exclamation point on that fact by choosing Paul Ryan.

And by the way, an almost 50% chance of success when a member of the House runs on the ticket does not a curse make…

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