Presidential Candidates Swap Congressional Votes for Campaign Events

Sep 22, 2011 5:59am

GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul has a jam-packed day of campaigning scheduled for next Tuesday. His first appearance is at noon Iowa-time and the Texas congressman will have attended three town halls and a chili supper throughout the first-in-the-nation state by 7 p.m.

And while all those appearances could help Paul win the Republican presidential nomination, none of them have much to do with representing the 14th district of Texas, which he has been elected to represent since 1997.

But Paul’s shift from congressional agendas to Iowa meet-and-greets is not an anomaly among White House hopefuls. It’s the norm.

“When you run for president, there’s a certain sense that you are abdicating that responsibility [of your elected office] and that’s accepted,” said Steve Jarding, Harvard public policy professor and Democratic campaign strategist.

“They all do it,” Jarding added. “I have never seen that it was a problem with anybody in politics.”

Since Paul launched his campaign, he has missed about 15 percent of the votes taken on the House floor. His fellow GOP candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has missed more than half since she announced her campaign in June, according to Congressional record data compiled by GovTrack.

Despite being in Washington, D.C., for a breakfast meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, Paul skipped a House vote Wednesday night on a stop-gap funding bill that would have funded the government through Nov. 18. Bachmann was also a no-show for the vote on the bill that would have prevented a government shutdown.

The measure failed in the House and unless Congress passes a continuing budget resolution before Sept. 30, the government will run out of money and be forced to shutdown until Congress agrees on a funding bill.

“If you are serious about running for president, you are going to miss a lot of votes,” said Mark Jones, the chairman of Rice University’s Department of Political Science. “With being a member of Congress, there’s this very nice tally of whether you did your job or you did not. And it’s a very easy one for people to understand, like an attendance report at school.”

But while Paul and Bachmann have skipped more than 100 votes each this year, they both have better “attendance reports” than past Congressmen-turned-presidential candidates.

At this point in the 2008 presidential race, then-Sen. Barack Obama had missed about 25 percent of the Senate’s votes. The eventual Republican nominee, Sen. Jon McCain, had cast his vote less than half of the time.

The 2008 rivals voted even less during the general election. From April to September 2008, soon-to-be President Obama skipped more than 80 percent of the votes called in the Senate. During the same six-month period, McCain cast just one vote. His lone ‘yea’ was for an amendment promoting tax incentives for renewable energy and energy conservation.

“I don’t like it,” Jarding said. “But anyone who believes it doesn’t happen is kidding themselves.”

While it might be easier to keep a tally on how well members of Congress do their day jobs during their presidential campaigns, governors are not off the hook either.

In the midst of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign roll-out, the governor made a quick trip back to the Lone Star state to address wildfires that had burned hundreds of homes.

Perry canceled what would have been his first appearance with other GOP contenders at a Tea Party event organized by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and rumors floated that he was considering skipping his first Republican debate.

“You could argue that Rick Perry was running back because it looked responsible. It would look bad if you’re not home when the state’s on fire, quite literally,” Jarding said. “I’m not impugning that he didn’t mean it or that he went back for all the right reasons, but you could make the case that there were ulterior motives.”

The added pressure of running a state administration along with a national campaign could wear on the candidate, even if the double job does not seem to weigh on the public.

“We just kind of expect that’s the way it is,” Jarding said. “Where it is more of a problem is where a governor feels – not illegitimately– feels they have some sort of moral or professional obligation to stay in the state to fulfill some agenda.”

Presidential candidates who are currently “unemployed,” as Romney categorized himself in June, have a scheduling advantage over candidates who are currently in office, Jones pointed out. Even if Perry only devotes 20 percent of his time and energy to Texas, that’s still time that a candidate like Romney is working on his campaign, he said.

“If you spend an hour in the morning being briefed on fires in Bastrop, that’s something you wouldn’t be doing if you were 100 percent focused,” he said.

Jarding, who managed the Senate campaigns of Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and John Edwards, D-N.C., emphasized the importance of being fully committed to a campaign. Having to run back to Capitol Hill and cast a controversial vote or jet home to deal with a state disaster eats up precious fundraising time.

“I think it gives you an advantage if you’re not cluttered,” Jarding said. “If you can be unobstructed in your pursuit of office, I think it’s better.”

But, Jarding added, “I’ve never seen it as a problem in the last generation that somebody was hurt because he was a Congressman or a governor and was running for office.”

While the public does not seem to mind if state elected officials turn their focus away from their day jobs to run for president, the opposite is true for a sitting president running for re-election.

“It’s such a different dynamic because it’s the White House,” Jarding said. “All the major newspapers don’t have correspondents sitting outside Michele Bachmann’s office every day. The correspondents are there at the White House every day.”

Whereas presidential hopefuls gain political traction by hand-shaking their way through early primary states, similar moves by the current president would likely be ill-received.

“If the economy was really good right now… then Obama could go out and campaign,” Jarding said. “But, boy, when the economy is bad, you better be there working or we are going to take note.”

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