In the history of American politics, one fact distills the nation’s enduring suspicion of cities: Voters have never elected a sitting mayor to the presidency.
Americans have seldom embraced anyone who’s even touched the job. Calvin Coolidge was the last president, one of just three in 230 years, to have been a mayor at any point. He led Northampton, Massachusetts — a modest town, really — for two years.
But as the Democratic Party becomes ever more aligned with urban areas, its presidential field is now studded with politicians whose boasts include running a city. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has now jumped to the lead in Iowa polling. Also in the race are two recent mayors, Julián Castro and Cory Booker, and another candidate who got his start as a mayor, Bernie Sanders. The current New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, and a former Denver mayor, John Hickenlooper, have already come and gone, while Michael Bloomberg, another New York City mayor, is still calculating on the sidelines.
That’s to say nothing of the mayors who flirted with a presidential bid (Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, New Orleans’ Mitch Landrieu, Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum) but never jumped in.
Mayors say the nature of the job has changed, as has the country’s perception of it. Machine politics are a thing of the past, and cities now claim to drive the country’s economic future. The reputation of politicians in Washington has suffered from legislative gridlock, Buttigieg suggests, making mayors, by comparison, look better.
But the political map is shifting, too. As the Democratic Party cedes rural voters to Republicans, Democratic candidates closely tied to cities face fewer obstacles building a primary coalition. And in a general election, where the country’s urban-rural divide has grown sharper, more suburban voters are joining that coalition, too.
“Whoever our next nominee is going to be, they better be able to get the record-level turnouts we had in ’08 and 2012 in urban areas,” said Booker, who was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, before becoming a U.S. senator. He pointed to steep declines in black voters in Milwaukee in 2016, in a state that President Donald Trump won by around 23,000 votes.
On the campaign trail, Booker sprints right into many negative associations voters have had with urban America. He took over a city with a shrinking population and tax base as well as a troubled school district, he says. He was the first mayor of Newark since the 1960s — “I’m not exaggerating” — who was not indicted or charged with corruption. But then he pivots to the argument that the city began to transform on his watch, as evidenced by new building permits, new residents, new grocery stores, even a new hotel.
This kind of American urban story — one of recovery rather than decline — is a relatively new one. Few mayors eyeing higher office could have plausibly told it in the 1990s, or the ’50s. Bloomberg and Buttigieg have their own versions of it, albeit on drastically different scales.
“Our community when I took office was being written up as dying,” Buttigieg said. “We’d been dealing for decades with the consequences of losing factories; we had a poverty rate approaching 30%.”
For Buttigieg, too, such dire details are worth telling because they are the backdrop of his story, not the point of it.
But it is perhaps a sign that some old perceptions have not died off that the most successful mayoral candidate so far is from a place that is smaller, whiter and less well known than Newark, New York or San Antonio. From Buttigieg’s office window, he notes that he can see both factories and cornfields, a view that situates him differently from any big-city mayor.
“It’s Indiana Rust Belt,” said Maxwell Palmer, a political scientist at Boston University. “But we don’t have a good sense of what South Bend is compared to lots of places, the way we do about New York or San Francisco.”
Given 230 years of hardened stereotypes about American cities, that vagueness may be an asset. With it, it’s possible that the mayor of a city of 100,000 may have a better chance of becoming president than the nationally known mayor of a city of 8 million.
It’s not just the reputation for corruption.
“There’s an even longer-standing American historical association with cities as being dangerous places,” said Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia. “Cities were associated with sin, with having a sense of anonymity.”
Thomas Jefferson believed that the rural farmer was the ideal of the American citizen. William Jennings Bryan preached something similar a century later. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic,” he said in his 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech. “But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
We can do without the cities, in other words.
At different points, they have been considered too full of immigrants, the poor, African Americans, factories, patronage, congestion and disease. And their mayors have been almost structurally predisposed to antagonize rural voters. In the battle for state resources, whatever cities won, rural communities appeared to lose, a tension that remains today.
In seeking higher office, mayors from smaller towns could also be ridiculed for lacking experience.
“The challenge then when you go to the larger city is that it sort of opens a can of worms,” said Patricia A. Kirkland, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton. “Larger cities tend to be more liberal. And as a result, some of the promises that politicians might need to make and the positions they might need to take to build an electoral coalition might be difficult to justify later to more moderate voters.”
As a result, mayors have appeared less likely to seek higher offices of all kinds, including the more obvious steppingstones to the presidency. The other two mayor-presidents, Andrew Johnson of Greeneville, Tennessee, and Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, New York, were, like Coolidge, governors in the interim (and Coolidge ascended to the presidency in 1923 after Warren G. Harding’s death, not through election).
Palmer, the political scientist, and colleagues cataloged the career trajectories of nearly 700 American mayors in office since 1992 in the largest cities and every state capital (South Bend wasn’t large enough to make the study). Fewer than 20% of the mayors ran for higher office, fewer than 15% won a primary, and only about 5% won their races. Those are striking numbers for the mayors of the country’s most prominent cities, the researchers argue.
In related interviews with mayors for the study, the obstacles appeared to be not just how nonurban voters might view these mayors, but also how the mayors might view their job options.
“A lot of them said that: ‘Why on earth would I want to do anything else?’” said Katherine Levine Einstein, the study’s lead author and also a political scientist at Boston University. “If you get to be a mayor of a city of over 100,000, it’s a pretty big job. You have a fair amount of control. And you get to live in your home.”
More mayors today are also claiming expansive roles setting higher minimum wages, immigration policies and environmental rules. The mayor of New York City can arguably do more about climate change than a Democratic president with a Republican Senate can.
“When you’re a mayor, you’re the center of gravity of everything,” said Anthony Williams, a former mayor of Washington, who has argued that the time is right for a mayor to become president. “I’m not criticizing the legislature, but mayors consider the legislature like a talk-a-thon.”
Now, if the less appealing jobs in between a mayor and a president can just be skipped, that’s a different story.
The most recent, closest approximation to a big-city mayor in a general election for president might have been Al Smith, said Gerald Gamm, a professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester. Smith was never actually a mayor. But he was inseparable from New York City, having been the sheriff of Manhattan, president of the city’s board of aldermen and later the governor. In the 1928 election against Herbert Hoover, Smith was the Roman Catholic candidate, the opponent of prohibition, the man tied to Tammany Hall.
“It was very much a battle between city and country, and country completely obliterated city,” Gamm said. Hoover carried 40 states. “But Obama-McCain was also a city-country campaign to some extent, and city won.”
What’s changed, Gamm said, is that the acceptance of immigrants and diversity long associated with cities is now more of a majority position in America. But it’s provocative to wonder if Barack Obama would have been as successful nationally had he been a mayor of Chicago first, and not a community activist and state legislator there. The city’s fiscal problems, racial inequality and crime might have clung to him more.
Mayors’ troubles (crime, poverty) tend be more widely recognized beyond city borders than their successes (plowing streets, improving parks). Booker has needed to trumpet those victories over what people might already think they know about Newark. For Bloomberg, the successes are more widely known, although they have created challenges of their own, including a city that has grown more expensive. Buttigieg entered the race with voters knowing little about his city’s troubles or successes. They have since learned that South Bend is on the rebound, but also that its Police Department has alienated African American residents.
Castro, who was mayor of San Antonio and then secretary of housing and urban development, potentially benefits from representing a city without a reputation for far-left politics, past corruption or recent decline. But if San Antonio vaguely seems like a foreign place to voters in Iowa or New Hampshire, Castro has a retort.
“I point out that San Antonio looks like America’s future,” he said. “It’s a city that is growing, with a diversified economy, a diverse population.”
Even if a mayor doesn’t win with that kind of argument in 2020, it appears that the job is no longer disqualifying.
“People criticized Mayor de Blasio,” said Williams, the former Washington mayor. “But it wasn’t because he was a mayor.”