The Occupations of the Declared 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates — And How it Can Help Or Hurt Them

Presidential election cycles often see slates of diverse candidates from both the Republican and Democratic Parties in terms of occupational backgrounds. While the types of backgrounds that were more prevalent have differed depending on periods of history, candidates that predominantly made their names as career politicians, high-ranking military officials, businessmen, or through other professions have found their way to the Oval Office.

Just like the crowded 2016 Republican Primary saw a diverse array of candidates (and not just by occupation), so too does the even more crowded 2020 Democratic Primary. It’s hard to separate oneself, especially in a field of 24 major candidates (although technically, there are literally hundreds of registered candidates among multiple parties), but the current occupation of the candidates has to be a huge part in how the candidates try to do so.

This article is going to focus primarily on what the candidates currently do. Of course, there are all sorts of other factors that matter — such as where candidates stand on issues or other offices they have held (if any) — but not everything can be covered for everyone in this post. Unless something else is particularly relevant (e.g., the 2016 campaign for president by Senator Bernie Sanders), this post is focused on general strengths and weaknesses of each candidate’s current job in parlaying it into a presidential bid. Candidates have been grouped together in the following categories:

  • U.S. Senators
  • U.S. House Representatives
  • Governors
  • Mayors
  • Other politicians that don’t fit (at least neatly) into one of the above categories
  • Non-politicians

Since this is only concerned with their current occupations for simplicity’s sake, there can be some candidates who would otherwise fit multiple categories but will only be placed in the one that they fit in currently. Julián Castro, for example, was also the mayor of San Antonio, but since he was most recently the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the federal government he is in the “other politicians” category instead of “mayors.”

  • Kamala Harris (California)
  • Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
  • Bernie Sanders (Vermont)
  • Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota)
  • Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)
  • Cory Booker (New Jersey)
  • Michael Bennet (Colorado)

There have been 16 presidents who served as U.S. Senators at some point in their careers, the most recent being Barack Obama.¹ Warren Harding, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Obama made a direct jump to the Oval Office from their Senate posts.

U.S. Senators get to be far more individualistic in comparison to their House counterparts for various reasons. Senators are often more seasoned in politics, there are less of them than House Representatives, and the rules regarding how business is conducted are far different between the two chambers, to name a few examples. They also tend to have more well-rounded policy experience to try to help sell themselves to voters who care deeply about particular issues.

Senators also tend to naturally get a lot more publicity than House Representatives. This helps boost their name identification, or how well-known a candidate or officeholder is. Name identification is of critical importance in a primary (and especially in this crowded Democratic field). It’s certainly been a help to Harris, Warren, and Sanders to some extent.

At the same time, name identification isn’t a guarantee or at least that it will be enough to push a candidate near the head of the pack. Polling is one indication of a huge uphill climb for Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Booker, and Bennet.With seven current U.S. Senators, they aren’t all going to be vying for the top spot in the primaries. And even high name identification can be an issue if a candidate is significantly disliked by those that do know him or her.

  • Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)
  • Seth Moulton (Massachusetts)
  • Eric Swalwell (California)
  • John Delaney (Maryland) [former representative]
  • Tim Ryan (Ohio)
  • Beto O’Rourke (Texas) [former representative]

There have been 19 presidents who have been members of the House of Representatives, the most recent being George H.W. Bush.² (John Quincy Adams, though, was a House Representative after his presidency instead of before). Four of them succeeded to the presidency without being elected, assuming the office after a president died or resigned — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Gerald Ford. James A. Garfield made the direct jump to the Oval Office from his House post.³

History aside, ascending to the presidency directly from the House is a tall order for other reasons. On average, they are much less politically experienced than Senators, such as on policy and by total years in political office. Perhaps more problematic than that, however, is the gulf between the constituency they already represent and the one they are seeking to represent. As president, every registered voter in the country is your constituent. Yet the 435 House members each represent only a small fraction of the nation, regardless of what state they come from. The two aren’t very comparable, if at all.

Representing a small portion of the nation also tends to mean relatively low name identification. It can be hard to grab media attention this way when there are many other candidates already taking it for themselves. On a positive note, there is a lot of room for making a positive impression on voters because they don’t have any previous knowledge of the candidate to go by.

Yet the House Representatives that have declared so far have not been able to make an impact on the race, with O’Rourke perhaps being the exception. In his case, he had just had a highly-publicized campaign in his bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 election, helping to keep his name identification up. Recent polls seem to suggest that he is losing support, however.

  • Jay Inslee (Washington)
  • Steve Bullock (Montana)
  • John Hickenlooper (Colorado) [former governor]

There have been 17 presidents who have served as a governor of a state, the most recent being George W. Bush.⁴ Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland (for the first of his two nonconsecutive terms), William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Bush parlayed governorships directly into presidential tenures. Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge became vice presidents directly from gubernatorial office, but would also be elected as presidents in their own right.

Governors, at least theoretically, should be one of the most well-equipped groups to sell their credentials in presidential bids. In some ways, they are “presidents” of states, fulfilling many of the same or similar duties for their state as presidents do for the nation. Governors have to consistently deal with state legislatures (similar to Congress), run state bureaucracies, appoint various officials, serve as political figureheads, and involve themselves in a wide range of political topics, to name a few examples. History has certainly indicated that being governor can be a big boost in presidential ambitions.

Yet some would also argue that being a governor “ain’t what it used to be.” Since Bush’s reelection in 2004, governors have had a hard time gaining traction in presidential campaigns. Alan Greenblatt for Governing Magazine writes that there are several major challenges facing governors who want to become president. The media — be it traditional media, “new” or alternative media, or social media — is overly obsessed with the nation’s capital, meaning much less focus on state executives. Being generally less partisan and ideological than Senators due to the nature of their jobs at the state level may also be a hindrance.⁵ Primaries also tend to see the more partisan and ideological elements of the Republican and Democratic Parties come out, and these voters often want a similarly partisan or ideological candidate. Being more moderate may help a governor in a general election, but to even make it there they have to win their party’s nomination in the primary.

Based on what polling has shown thus far, Greenblatt is right and the struggles for governors are going to continue. Of course, it doesn’t help that there are so many other candidates vying for attention too. Yet even in smaller fields of recent presidential election cycles, they had trouble even sniffing the top spot in the polls, let alone contending for it. It is also worth noting that there are only three governors (Hickenlooper just completed his second term in Colorado and could not run again due to term limits) in this race compared to six current or just recent U.S. House Representatives and seven current U.S. Senators. With governors having trouble even breaking 1% support in polling, their campaigns are in danger of ending before they even really begin.

  • Pete Buttigieg (Indiana)
  • Wayne Messem (Florida)
  • Bill de Blasio (New York)

Only three presidents had previously been mayors: Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge.⁵ None of them made a direct jump from city hall to the White House.³

Like with governors, there are some similarities between mayors and presidents. Mayors are the chief executive of their cities, with city council acting as a legislative branch. Some of the duties are the same or at least similar but at the city level.

Beyond that, there are few if any more similarities. It’s already a monumental task for governors, U.S. House Representatives, and U.S. Senators to make the climb. It’s a lot more so for mayors, jumping from one city to the entire nation. It’s why so few even try to run for the White House and instead tend to run for governor or other state-level offices.

Messem and de Blasio — the mayors of Miramar, Florida, and New York City, respectively — are finding that out the hard way. Messem seems to not even appear in polls conducted by Morning Consult. Buttigieg has caught fire so far, but it’s still very early in the campaign. In politics, all sorts of crazy things can happen. In a few months time, his campaign may be but a memory or he can be at the head of the Democratic field.

  • Joe Biden (Delaware): former Vice President
  • Julián Castro (Texas): former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Mike Gravel (Alaska): former U.S. Senator [a special case, as will be noted here]

A quick note about Gravel: The U.S. Senator from 1969 to 1981 for Alaska does not actually intend to seek the Democratic nomination. Rather, the campaign has stated that they intend to push the Democratic field to the left ideologically and then drop out, eventually endorsing the most progressive candidate.⁶ Thus, Gravel won’t be discussed here beyond that.

While Biden is easily the frontrunner according to early polls, pundits and observers have often overstated how much that means this early on. The early frontrunner eventually collapsing as a campaign wears on is far from unprecedented. It’s a very long campaign season where all sorts of things can happen. There’s an over-obsession with the “horse race” aspect of polling in political commentary in general, and this laser focus can influence how many people vote. Many voters are reluctant to support someone they think will lose, even if they really believe in that candidate. They will use polling to help make those decisions to “cut their losses” and vote for somebody tolerable to them or that is “the lesser of two evils.”

That being said, Biden has plenty going his way as well. He’s the most recent former vice president, very well-known, and looked upon favorably by much of his party. Many of the more ideological voters of the Democratic Party are firmly against him, seeing him as not liberal enough, but that may not be enough to prevent his nomination. The fact that he has also run twice for president before — in 1988 and 2008 — is also a very important experience boost, even though the political landscape was far different in both of those elections. It’s hard to imagine Biden falling out early on at least, but there is plenty of time for things to change.

Early on in the nation’s history, serving in the Cabinet was a big boon to presidential ambitions, with five of the first eight presidents of the U.S. also once being secretaries of at least one of its departments. Eight presidents in total have been secretaries of Cabinet departments: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. Since Hoover was president from 1925 to 1929, it has been a long time since a former Cabinet secretary won the presidency.

Given that history and current polling data, Castro has a huge uphill climb. He’d also be the first of his particular department that he was secretary of, Housing and Urban Development, to become president (although HUD wasn’t established until the early 1960s). He’s also not very well-known and is behind 13 other Democrats in fundraising. Again, there is still plenty of time left in the campaign, but Castro is going to have to find out how to make some quick inroads to stay afloat for very long.

  • Marianne Williamson (California): author and lecturer
  • Andrew Yang (New York): entrepreneur and author

As oft-repeated as it is that Donald Trump is someone who won the presidency with no previous experience in political office, there seems to be a pervasive misconception that just about anyone can storm in to win the presidency. Whether you have a positive, negative, or neutral opinion of him, Trump did not simply become president just because he was an outsider. The political environment boded well for his candidacy, he was already very well-known as a businessman and as a TV personality, and he was highly effective at getting his message out. There is more to it than that, but the point is that not just anyone can become the nation’s chief executive.

There is nothing to indicate that Williamson or Yang can recreate that kind of campaign, at least not yet. Yang has a very fervent, but also very small, contingent of supporters (see: “Yang Gang”). They’re two of the least-known candidates running. They’re well behind in the money game. Their respective occupations appear to have done nothing to boost their candidacies. Being an outsider only helps if electoral circumstances make it beneficial to be one, if you have the right message, and you are a candidate who can harness that outsider persona to their advantage.

If we are just going by net worths, it doesn’t appear that either Yang and Williamson will be able to do much self-funding, which makes outsider bids even harder. If they can make it to the debates, though, they may be able to gain enough publicity to make donors and voters pay attention to them.

While some reasonable assumptions can be made about some candidates’ chances at winning the Democratic nomination, it is still so early that few (if any) predictions should be made with a fair amount of certainty. There’s always room for plenty of surprises in presidential campaigns. But we can certainly make some observations about what does help or hurt these candidates, and their current jobs are going to be a big part of that. With the first Democratic debates just around the corner on June 26th and 27th in Miami, we’ll see if some performances will include successfully selling how their current occupations make them appealing candidates.

  1. U.S. Senate. “Senators Who Became President.” https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senators_became_president.htm (accessed May 24, 2019).
  2. U.S. House. “House Members Who Served as President.” https://history.house.gov/People/Other-Office/Member-President/ (accessed March 24, 2019).
  3. Inside Election with Nathan L. Gonzales. “Oval Office Obsessions From a Crew With Little Experience, Much Ambition.” http://www.insideelections.com/news/article/oval-office-obsessions-from-a-crew-with-little-experience-much-ambition (accessed May 25, 2019).
  4. David J. Andersen and John Weingart. Rutgers University — Center on the American Governor. “Governors Who Became President.” http://governors.rutgers.edu/on-governors/us-governors/governors-and-the-white-house/governors-who-became-president/ (accessed May 25, 2019).
  5. Alan Greenblatt. Governing Magazine. “‘Being Governor Ain’t What It Used to Be’: How Their Road to the White House Became an Uphill Climb.” https://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-governors-president-trump-2020-hickenlooper-bullock.html (accessed May 25, 2019).
  6. Ballotpedia. “Mike Gravel presidential campaign, 2020.” https://ballotpedia.org/Mike_Gravel_presidential_campaign,_2020 (accessed May 25, 2019).

Written by

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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