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Episode 48: Who Gets to Run For President

Forty-four people have become President of The United States - all men, and with one exception, all white. Despite that historic profile, and a clause in the constitution, the qualification about who can become President remains fuzzy. Here to explain the formal and informal rules that govern who is allowed to become Commander-in-Chief is Brady Carlson, author of Dead Presidents.

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[Virginia Prescott] So let's begin. What are the constitutional qualifications for becoming president?

[Brady Carlson] OK. There are three of them and two of them are pretty straightforward. There's one that's pretty complicated, the first one is age. You have to be 35 years or older and that is when you take office.

[VP] OK so if Mark Zuckerberg, you know, if he's not just hanging out in Iowa because it's a lovely state, would he be eligible for a 2020 run up presidency? I think he's 33.

[BC] If he's 33 now he would be fine as long as he turns 35 before Inauguration Day. So once you take that oath of office you have to meet all of the qualifications.

[VP] So Inauguration Day not Election Day.

[BC] Not Election Day, exactly. You can still be 34 on Election Day as long as your birthday is coming up.

[VP] OK.

[BC] The second is a residency requirement that says you have to be an inhabitant of the United States for 14 years or more. This is mostly a carryover from the early days of the country. They didn't want someone who maybe lived in the UK up until you know the Constitution was ratified suddenly taking a boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean and then saying, "Hey guys! I'm here, I'm going to be your new president."

That said though, there have been some questions about what exactly it means to be an inhabitant because it's not entirely spelled out in the Constitution. It says you have to be an inhabitant for 14 years. But does that mean 14 years in a row? Does that mean 14 years over the course of your life? And just the word inhabitant itself can be interpreted in different ways. Does that mean that you're physically in the United States for up to 14 years? Or does it mean that you maintain a domicile like you have a physical mailing address? There was a question in the 20th century about Herbert Hoover. He had worked overseas before he was elected president and it was within that 14 year window.

So if inhabitant meant 14 straight years of being in the United States ahead of being elected he might have not been eligible to be president. That's obviously not what happened though.

[VP] OK. Number three.

[BC] Number three is the most complicated qualification so I'm just going to read it right out of the Constitution. "No person except a natural born citizen or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall be eligible to the office of president." What it means to be a natural born citizen is something that the courts have not entirely weighed in on. So it is definitely up to interpretation.

[VP] I remember this came up for the Texas senator Ted Cruz, right?

[BC] I remember being at a primary event that he had in New Hampshire during the 2016 campaign and a guy in the audience put it to him point blank he said: "Ted Cruz you were born in Canada. To me a person born in Canada is not a natural born citizen of the United States and therefore you're not eligible to be president." So here's the back story, Ted Cruz was born in Canada. His mother was born in Delaware so she was an American born person. His father was born in Cuba, at that point he was not a citizen of the United States but he is now. They were working in Canada at the time. And so Ted Cruz said by virtue of having a mother who was an American citizen he was a natural born American. The quote he gave was: “I have never breathed a breath of air when I wasn't an American citizen.”

[VP] So Ted Cruz says that, but who's even in charge of determining whether or not he was a natural born citizen?

[BC] Ultimately it's a question that can be decided in the courts. Now that's one that hasn't totally been decided in the courts. In Ted Cruz's case there were several legal challenges to his candidacy. Most of those were turned away on procedural grounds, a few declared that basically that his explanation was good enough. But unless someone files a lawsuit against you, basically your word is good enough to get you qualified. But there have been other challenges over the years. John McCain, in fact, when he ran for president faced some legal challenges because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, he wasn't born in a state. Mitt Romney's dad, George Romney, when he ran for president in the 1960s he was born in Mexico to American parents and they both faced the same kinds of questions. Now like I said the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't taken this up. So the broad understanding up to this point is essentially if you're born in the United States you're a natural born citizen under the birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. If you're born in some other part of the world but one of your parents, not both, but one of your parents is an American citizen then you're still considered a natural born citizen.

[VP] You gave us some more recent examples. Had this ever been challenged in the past when the United States was a real nation of immigrants and people were arriving on the shores, you know, for decades?

[BC] My favorite story is the one when Chester A. Arthur became president. He was vice president under James Garfield and then moved up after Garfield died. He was born in rural Vermont, and some of his political enemies started a whisper campaign that maybe he was actually born in southern Canada rather than rural Vermont. Obviously that didn't go too far either. But, it's not a new thing for people to speak of their political opponents as "the other" or maybe not quite as American as other people are.

[VP] So Brady, in a previous episode of Civics 101 we learned about U.S. territories. Could somebody who was born in a U.S. territory become president?

[BC] Well that's a really interesting question because most of those who are born in U.S. territories are still considered American citizens, but not all. There are some of those territories where people who are considered American nationals but not technically American citizens. Would they be eligible to run for president if they were say from American Samoa? I'm not entirely sure. And we haven't had any American Samoan candidates for president that I know of. But it would certainly be an interesting legal question to bring up once we get to that point.

[VP] But Brady, how about things aside from those qualifications of age and domicile and whether or not you're a natural born citizen, I mean, what kind of qualities tend to get people written off as serious presidential candidates?

[BC] Well for the longest time the unofficial qualifications were disqualifying much more people than any of those constitutional qualifications. I mean for hundreds of years it would have been considered ridiculous for a woman to be the nominee for a political party for the office of president of the United States. And people of color, same thing, or people who didn't have a background in politics and/or the military. Religion was a disqualifying factor, in some states for a long time they disqualified Catholics for running for anything. It was considered that a white male Protestant was an unofficial but sort of universal qualification for president. I mean even today you will hear questions, I remember during the primary campaign where people were saying that, you know, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie might be too fat to be president. Never mind the fact that we've had overweight presidents in the past that people felt obliged to weigh in on whether a person's physical attributes would disqualify them for president, even if it doesn't say anything about that in the Constitution it still came up.

[VP] Weigh in, Brady, really like what you did there. So OK another question: if somebody is an incumbent president do they automatically become the nominee for the next election cycle?

[BC] They do not. No guarantees. You gotta earn it. And in fact nobody is a better case study for that than New Hampshire's only President, Franklin Pierce. He won election in 1852. And while it was common in those days for people to serve just one term he had his eye on reelection. The only problem was he had made himself very unpopular in his own party. And so when the 1856 Democratic Party Convention came around, he actually lost the nomination to another Democrat, James Buchanan. He sought the nomination. He wanted to get a second term. And they said thanks, but no thanks.

So it's actually fairly common in U.S. history for incumbent presidents to face strong primary challenges. The incumbents usually win against those challenges. A great example of that was in 1976, that was when Gerald Ford was running for a full term and he faced a very serious challenge in the Republican primary from former California governor Ronald Reagan. They were separated by just a handful of delegates. Reagan very much could have won that nomination. But Ford was able to hold on, but it can happen.

[VP] So then if incumbents usually win then why to other people challenge them in primaries?

[BC] Because in politics the usual rules for things don't always apply, in some ways you can actually win by losing. An example of that was in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush was running for a second term and he faced a primary challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. Pat Buchanan wasn't going to win that race. He wasn't in a position to take the nomination away from a sitting president, but he was able to put up a strong enough showing in especially in the New Hampshire primary that he was able to change the course of the Republican platform. He really wanted to have more socially conservative language in that platform and was able to get some of that into the party platform for the year.

Another example of that was in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson was looking to win another term. But Vietnam was a very controversial issue at the time and some anti-war Democrats ran against him in the New Hampshire primary and actually did well enough that they convinced Johnson he couldn't win another term so he actually got out of the race which was kind of what they were aiming for. All of that said though, once an incumbent gets into the general election, assuming that they do fend off all those primary challengers, they tend to do very well. There have been 22 times when an incumbent has won another term. They've only lost 10 times.

Obviously we don't know what's going to happen with President Trump in 2020. But the last three U.S. presidents in a row, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have each won re-election so incumbency is not a universal thing, but it is a very powerful thing.

[VP] So not everybody can become president but incumbents have a pretty good shot?

[BC] Incumbents have a better shot than say a schlep like me.

[VP] But, Brady, you have other qualities.

[BC] I have other qualities that get me on podcasts. I would say but probably won't land me in the White House. 

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