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A Senator Becomes President

November 2, 1920

Photo of Warren Harding

What are the chances of being elected president directly from a seat in the Senate? History's answer, at best, is "slim." While 16 of the nation's 45 presidents served in the Senate at some point in their public careers, only three—Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama—won their presidential races as incumbent senators.

In 1832 Henry Clay became the first senatorial incumbent to try. He lost to presidential incumbent Andrew Jackson. Four years later, Daniel Webster tried his luck but came in a poor fourth against Vice President Martin Van Buren. The campaigns of 1848, 1852, and 1860 included incumbent senators, but we look in vain on the list of that era's presidents for the names of Lewis Cass, John Hale, or Stephen Douglas.

The 1850s opened up another possible route to the White House for incumbent senators—the vice presidency. In 1852 Democratic senator William King of Alabama—Franklin Pierce's running mate—became the first incumbent to gain his party's vice-presidential nomination. Soon after he won the election, however, he became ill and went to Cuba to recover. Too ill to return to Washington, he took his vice-presidential oath in Cuba and died soon thereafter.

Since William King's day, 27 incumbent senators have gained major party vice-presidential nominations. Of this number, 14 won the vice presidency, but only three—Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson—subsequently became president.

In 1920 Warren Harding, an Ohio Republican, won his party's nomination as a compromise candidate on the 10th ballot. Harding fit a popular image of what a president should look like. Tall and handsome with silver hair and dark eyebrows, he had easily won a Senate seat six years earlier. A cheerful and friendly party loyalist, he seemed to get along well with everyone. While in the Senate, Harding developed a talent for being able to speak so vaguely on major issues that he could appeal to people on both sides of any political question. This served him well in the 1920 presidential campaign. Although his speeches make little sense when read today, they soothed a war-weary nation.

While the Democratic ticket of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt campaigned frantically throughout the nation, Harding conducted his campaign from his front porch, ever careful to avoid sensitive subjects. On November 2, 1920, the American people rewarded his promise for "a return to normalcy" with the largest margin of victory in any presidential election up to that time.