How does a state long a political colossus in presidential politics fail so dismally, election after election to produce presidential aspirants?
Pennsylvania’s first, only, and maybe last president was James Buchanan, who held the office leading up to the Civil War. Historians still argue about his effectiveness. Let’s just say you are unlikely to see many statues of him littering the capitol grounds the next time you visit Washington. After Buchanan, there was one resident Pennsylvanian nominated by a major party, Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880. James Garfield defeated Hancock, a bona fide Civil War hero, veteran of Gettysburg and widely respected military commander, in the closest popular vote in presidential election history.
Since then it has been slow going for would-be presidents from the Keystone State. By any calculus, it’s a rare event that “Pennsylvania” and “presidential candidate” are used in the same sentence.
There have been some exceptions, mostly favorite sons or other nominal candidacies. U.S. Senator Philander C. Knox was a Republican candidate in 1908. In 1920, Governor William Sproul had some support at the GOP convention, as did Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the Democratic convention. And Governor Arthur James was a dark horse candidate at the Republican Convention in 1940. All four were Pennsylvania natives.
Conversely there have been several runs by Pennsylvania residents born in other states. Governor William Scranton made a serious run for the GOP nomination in 1964 – but Scranton was born in Connecticut; in the 1970s, Governor Milton Shapp made a short-lived effort to capture the Democratic nomination, but he was born in Ohio; in the 1990s, Senator Arlen Specter launched a bid for the Republican nomination, but he was born in Kansas; in 2012 Rick Santorum finished second in the GOP nomination contest, but he was born in Virginia.
Altogether it’s been more than 75 years since a native-born resident of Pennsylvania made any kind of run for the presidency – and more than 135 years since a native-born resident of Pennsylvania was nominated by a major party.
Paradoxically there really has been no great shortage of Pennsylvania natives running for president, just a shortage of Pennsylvania natives who still live in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania may be – and probably is – the greatest exporter of presidential talent to other states in the country.
Indeed, plenty of Pennsylvania natives run for president while living in other states. The 2016 cycle is representative of this phenomenon. Already two Pennsylvania natives are announced candidates while a third may still enter the race. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (born in Pittsburgh) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (born in McKee’s Rocks) are running for the Republican nomination. Vice President Joe Biden, a resident of Delaware (born in Scranton), may yet run for the Democratic nomination.
The 2012 cycle was similar. In 2012, at least two native Pennsylvanians were serious candidates for the Republican nomination: Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House (born in Dauphin County); and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, (born in Green Tree.). A third, Indiana’s former governor Mitch Daniels (born in Washington County) was prominently mentioned but took himself out of the race very early.
Further back in history was an Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack (born in Pittsburgh);Utah Sen. Orin Hatch (born in Pittsburgh); a Kansas governor, Alf Landon, (born in Mercer County); and a Maine senator James G. Blaine (born in Washington County). Landon and Blaine were actually nominated by the GOP – Blaine in 1884 and Landon in 1936.
That native Pennsylvanians need to become expatriates to run for president begs an explanation – as does its corollary that those who do run for president from Pennsylvania were born in a different state.
One answer comes from political scientists and historians who argue that Pennsylvania’s nitty-gritty political culture, machine politics, and pervasive corruption just hasn’t attracted the best and the brightest to state politics.
That may account for some of the paucity of state presidential candidates, but not all. Other states with less than storybook politics, including Ohio and Illinois, have been prolific in producing presidential candidates (and presidents).
Randomness plays a role in politics as it does in life. Some of Pennsylvania’s drought of presidential candidates may be just bad luck. U.S. Sen. John Heinz, before his tragic death in 1991, was believed by many to be a future presidential candidate. Former Gov. Dick Thornburgh came very close to being named to the national GOP ticket as George H.W. Bush’s running mate. Similarly, former Governor Tom Ridge was on many short lists for vice president.
Whether bad politics or bad luck, the lesson is clear. If you were born in Pennsylvania and want to run for president, you might want to move to another state before you file those papers. It’s still okay for a native Pennsylvanian to run for president – just don’t live Pennsylvania when you do it.