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What history predicts about this presidential election

March 7, 2008 |  9:54 am

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

But one thing is certain -- well, more than likely: This will be the first-ever presidential election in the nation's history pitting two sitting U.S. senators against each other.

Americans haven't been very receptive to legislators from that body becoming the nation's chief executive. Only two sitting senators -- John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920 -- have ever succeeded in reaching the White House. And neither of them completed one term, as pointed out by Robert Schmuhl, an expert and author on the American presidency and an American Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame.

In the 48 years since Kennedy, his research shows, 40 senators have sought the presidency. And 40 didn't get it.

And that's not counting 2007-08, when six sitting and one former senator started the election talkathon last year. It took one of those rare times when no incumbent or sitting vice president was running to open the doors for an actual senator.

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:

Gov. Jimmy Carter over former congressman and President Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan over President Carter in 1980 and over former Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, Gov. Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush in 1992, President Clinton over former Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush over former senator and Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and President Bush over Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

The only possible exception was Vice President Bush over Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, but many would argue Bush was basically running for a third Reagan term.

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, whose brief time there could become a plus, or the longtime senator but even longer-time maverick John McCain?

The other remaining contender -- Sen. Hillary Clinton -- has made her Washington experience as first lady a crucial part of her case for election. Ready on Day One. Will voters see her more as essentially an interrupted third Clinton term or as the opposite of the Republican incumbent?

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

Will it be Obama, who attracts large crowds but was recently labeled the most liberal of 100 senators by the nonpartisan National Journal? Will it be Clinton, who was also ranked high on the liberal scale but is perceived as closer to the center? Or will it be McCain, who's a reliable conservative on some issues but has sometimes voted against his own party?

In his Wall Street Journal column Thursday, former top White House advisor Karl Rove examined three recent sets of polls including the The Times/Bloomberg poll. And though some recent published stories have examined the number of "Obamicans," Republicans attracted to vote for Obama, Rove found the figures actually reveal the existence of what he calls "McCainicrats." And not just Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

"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.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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