The only sure bet: A senator will win

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Given the fascinating twists and turns of the current election season, only a foreign-exchange student just off the plane would hazard a prediction about this Nov. 4 presidential balloting.

But one thing looks certain: This will be the first presidential election in the nation’s history pitting two sitting U.S. senators against each other.

Americans haven’t been very receptive to legislators becoming the nation’s chief executive.


Only two sitting senators -- John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920 -- ever got to the White House. And neither completed one term, as noted by Robert Schmuhl, an author on the American presidency and an American Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Not counting the current contest, in the 48 years since Kennedy’s election, Schmuhl’s research shows 40 senators have sought the presidency. And 40 didn’t get it.

Americans have revealed some other preferences in their presidential voting: They like chief executives; four of the last five presidents have been governors, which is what gave hope to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Over the last three decades, Americans have preferred to elect what Schmuhl calls “outsiders” and “opposites” to go to Washington, not insiders to stay there.

Yet this time, all three of the remaining candidates are “from” Washington. So which one will be seen as less Washington?

Freshman Illinois Sen. Barack Obama? Longtime senator but even longer-time maverick John McCain? Second-term Sen. Hillary Clinton, who also spent eight years as first lady?


History also suggests that this year’s winner will be perceived as occupying a central position on the political spectrum, with the ability to attract votes from the opposite party.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, former top White House advisor Karl Rove examined three recent sets of polls including The Times/Bloomberg poll. And though some recent published stories have examined the number of “Obamicans” -- Republicans attracted to vote for Obama -- Rove found that the figures actually reveal the existence of what he calls “McCainicrats.” And not just Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (although technically he’s an independent).

“Almost twice as many Democrats support Mr. McCain,” Rove wrote, “as Republicans support Mr. Obama. Three times as many Democrats support Mr. McCain as Republicans back Mrs. Clinton.”

Not even a foreign- exchange student would walk into predicting that one.

Can Arnold aid McCain?

Half the fun of politics-watching is politics-speculating, and John Mercurio at the National Journal mused recently on what John McCain might gain by making an early play for Arnold Schwarzenegger as a member of his Cabinet.

In a word, California.

Republican presidential contenders have won California before, and with the right play -- to the middle, primarily -- they could win again. How do you make that play? You start by signing up the guv, who’s won the state twice. Imagine the “Terminator” as secretary of Homeland Security. Or the “Kindergarten Cop” in charge of Education.

And if McCain did win California, the 55 electoral votes the Democrats usually count on would suddenly be in the “red” column -- a potentially watershed change in the electoral map (though one suspects Hollywood would start a secessionist movement, with Rob Reiner holding the flag).


One argument against Schwarzenegger heading to Washington: It’s a longer commute to his home in Brentwood than from Sacramento.

Are we ‘post-racial’?

Mort Kondracke, writing for the Capitol Hill-centric publication Roll Call, went where most other commentators have shied from -- the role of race in Barack Obama’s Tuesday losses, especially in Ohio.

Kondracke makes a persuasive case that Obama’s effort to run as a “ ‘post-racial’ candidate -- the political equivalent of Tiger Woods” -- has had only limited success.

Actually, Kondracke fleshes out his argument by relying on elections analyst Jay Cost.

Cost, Kondracke says, “has developed a convincing theory about the Democratic racial factor: Obama wins in states with majority-black Democratic turnout, like South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and in states with few blacks, like Wisconsin, Washington and Vermont.

“He also has won in states with mixed populations where white family income is high, such as Maryland and Virginia.”

But he notes that Cost contends it is Clinton who has won in states where blacks constitute a major minority but where average white income is lower.


“So in largely white Wisconsin, Obama carried white males by a margin of 63% to 34%. But in Ohio, Clinton won, 58% to 39%,” Kondracke writes.

This does not bode well for Obama April 22 in Pennsylvania, which is much more like Ohio than Wisconsin.

Now, about Ohio . . .

Hillary Clinton’s exuberance about Ohio is perfectly understandable; her convincing win there Tuesday put her back on her feet in the hunt for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Still, she’s gotten a little carried away in touting the state’s importance.

In her victory speech in Columbus, she rightly characterized it as “a bellwether state . . . a battleground state.” Then she sent us scurrying to the history books with this claim: “And no candidate in recent history, Democrat or Republican, has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary.”

Well, it depends on what your definition of “recent history” is.

In Ohio’s 1960 primary (Clinton was 12 at the time), the man who won the White House later that year, John Kennedy, took a pass on the contest. The Democratic delegates initially were pledged to a favorite son, then-Gov. Michael DiSalle.

Similarly, favorite sons in both the Democratic and Republican primaries won in 1964 and 1968 (a timeline creeping ever closer to “recent history”).


Since then, it appears Clinton was correct -- but in a very technical way. As Andrew Cayton, a history professor at Miami University in Ohio, noted, the state’s primaries typically have been held when the likely nominee has surfaced in each party -- and not so long ago, most expected that would be the case this year.

Clinton, in her round of stops on TV shows, continued to promote Ohio as having outsize influence. “If you cannot win in Ohio, you cannot win the presidency,” she said.

True enough for Republicans -- as virtually every political reporter knows by heart, since the GOP was founded in the 1850s, not one of its nominees has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.

Among Democrats, however, Kennedy ended up taking the inaugural oath despite losing Ohio to Richard Nixon, and Franklin D. Roosevelt won his fourth -- and final -- term in 1944 despite losing the state to Thomas Dewey.


Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


Excerpted from The Times’ political blog, Top of the Ticket, at /topoftheticket