The Not-So-Winding Road from the House to the Presidency

On Tuesday reports came out that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is considering jumping into the GOP presidential race. Just two days earlier, sitting members of the House of Representatives – Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul -- finished in first and second place in the Iowa Straw Poll. Though none of these candidates (and potential candidates) are favored to win the nomination, it is clear that members of the House, and Michele Bachmann especially, are playing a much larger role in the primaries than House members traditionally have. In fact, only one member of the House of Representatives has ever gone straight to the White House: James Garfield. This is because it’s difficult for Representatives -- who are members of a 435 person body -- to distinguish themselves and attract the stable of donors that are necessary for winning a national campaign.

The Republican primary is no aberration, however, and we should expect Representatives to play larger roles in future presidential campaigns because many of the barriers that once existed for Representatives to mount legitimate campaigns for president no longer exist. And this is particularly true on the Republican side. Between Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the internet, it's not hard for the conservative media machine to make a rock star out of anyone. It's relatively easy for an outspoken representative like Bachmann to find herself on Americans’ TV screens every night. In Ron Paul’s case, the internet has made both familiarity and fundraising issues easy to overcome. Paul emerged as a surprisingly strong candidate in 2007, galvanizing supporters online and setting online fundraising records in his bid for the nomination

The intensely partisan tone in politics will continue to boost Representatives running for President. House members are often more radical than Senators because House members only have to appeal to voters in their districts. These more radical House members, who might never be able to win statewide office, like Bachmann, have a real advantage in primary contests where Republican primary voters are skewed to the far right of the Republican Party. Even though they don’t appeal to a whole state, they have a chance at winning the nomination just by appealing to conservative Republicans.

Citizens United is also easing the Representatives' path to the nomination. They no longer need a dedicated state operation or even money from voters; as long as they appeal to the SuperPACs pouring money into campaigns, a history of building donor support becomes less important.

So, unless something shifts within the Republican Party, ambitious Representatives running for President are here to stay. Rather than the structural barriers of the past, the only thing holding these candidates from the front of the pack are their own fringe beliefs.