Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Invisible States

Will we ever see a president from a small state?

When we learn about Presidents in elementary school, or even on that survey college course, I'm sure it's been given little thought. But the fact that there are so few Presidents from small states seems odd to me, and probably for a different reason than would be expected.

At first glance, it seems normal: someone who governs a big, complex state is probably better suited to handle the presidency. Of course, this really only applies to governors, since senators and representatives do most of their governing in DC. But I've always found it odd that there wasn't more of a cancelling effect: that is, in a big state like New York, Texas, or California, there are multiple politicians vying for publicity and support; whereas someone from, say, Delaware or North Dakota could shine through as a big fish in a small pond--which is even more effective when you go to DC and such big/small distinctions are leveled away. So even though statistically the population would say that half of our presidents would hail from three or four states (California, NY, Texas, and Illinois), one would think that they would all sort of cancel each other out.

[Note that I am using the term "home state" as the state they were elected/held their power from, not their birth state. They aren't always one in the same and sometimes don't matter, such as for Hoover or Eisenhower who spent most of their reputation-forming years overseas.]

Still it's pretty clear that my theory is (for the most part) wrong. Let's only focus on last century--the nation wasn't big enough beforehand to make distinctions (plus that whole Civil War thing adding a lot of static into the numbers). If we run through every president from McKinley to Obama, you'll find only two states that could be considered small--Kansas (Eisenhower) and Arkansas (Clinton). And, as mentioned earlier, even Eisenhower doesn't count--his home constituency was Europe.

We can stretch the definition of "small state" to include states such as Georgia (Carter), Missouri (Truman), New Jersey (Wilson), and Massachusetts (Coolidge and JFK), but we're still talking about a small number of Presidents.

I guess the most striking difference is because of our recent candidates. We had a candidate from Arizona (McCain) and three vice presidents/candidates from the three smallest states: Alaska (Palin), Delaware (Biden) and the smallest state of all, Wyoming (Cheney). Of course, the number of vice presidents that go on to be president is remarkably small in the 20th century, so maybe that is it: the big-state candidates win the Presidency and pick a small-state candidate to balance it out, but the bottom part of the ticket never makes it to the White House.


  1. Unrelated: I saw a news story today about the Pittsburgh arena football team being fired while in a Florida Olive Garden, and I'm dying for your analysis of the situation.

  2. Ha! I was going to write about the Arena Football situation a few days ago, but by the time I had a chance to write anything it had already made national news, so I didn't bother.

    I'm going to a game here in a few weeks (or at least I hope, if the league is still solvent) so I'll probably write something up then.