Paths to the White House

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVirginia considers itself the home of presidents. Four of the first five presidents were associated with this state, though there has not been a Virginian president since John Tyler, the tenth. New York and Ohio have produced six presidents each, though not since the 32nd and the 29th respectively. Just in your columnist’s lifetime there have three presidents from Texas, since Lyndon Johnson and both Presidents Bush were primarily affiliated with that state. (The elder Bush was actually born in Massachusetts and the younger in Connecticut). 

There is no single reason why New York has not produced a president since FDR. Rudy Giuliani’s campaign fizzled, Hillary Clinton’s ran the distance, but ultimately fell short. Mario Cuomo hesitated, and then failed to grab the opportunity in 1992. 

Virginia, though, has a one-at-a-time term limit for the governor’s office. No governor may succeed himself in office. Governors are eligible for multiple, non-consecutive, terms, but no-one has ever served in this way.

Though Mitt Romney came fairly close, only Jimmy Carter, in recent years, has risen to the presidency after a single term as a state governor. To achieve any sort of name recognition nationally as a governor, it usually necessary to serve more than one term, and Virginia’s rules discourage this. Ronald Reagan served two full terms as governor of the nation’s largest state before his first serious run at the White House. (And his name recognition was already high from his previous career). Bill Clinton served 12 years as governor of Arkansas: six two-year terms, with five of them served consecutively. Such long service gave him the platform to become chair of the National Governors’ Association. George W Bush announced his campaign for president only after being re-elected as governor of Texas. As the son of a former president, vice-president and chair of the Republican National Committee, he had been well-connected since childhood. 

There are, of course, other routes to the White House than being a state governor. But the senate is, generally, where presidential ambitions go to die. Senators are seen as DC insiders. The only senators to be elected president in recent decades triumphed against candidates who were even more deeply inside the Beltway. Barack Obama defeated a longer-serving senator and John F Kennedy the vice-president, himself a former senator. 

Virginia presently has two former governors serving in the Senate. Both are substantial political figures with national networks. One is a former chair of the Democratic National Committee. But if either were to run for president he would have the death tag of “senator” attached to his name.

If a political figure from Virginia wishes to become president, the obvious solution is to serve two terms as governor. This would take a minimum of 12 years, allowing for the four year gap. Another is to serve in some other position – and senator might well work – first. A candidate will normally be addressed by according to his (or her) most recent position. Pete Wilson, therefore, who was a US senator from, and then governor of, California, is addressed as “Governor Wilson”. (He left office very unpopular, though, so he is unlikely ever to run for president). 

So there are solutions to the problem. But if Virginia wishes to restore its reputation as the home of presidents, it probably needs to change its term limits law.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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