The vast majority of U.S. presidents came to office as veterans, which included service in state militias and the National Guard. Several presidents were prominent military generals, including George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War; Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded the Union troops during the Civil War; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the U.S. Army during World War II. Following the Civil War, a series of veterans, all who fought for the Union, served as president, while the First and Second World Wars brought in another wave of veteran presidents. Recent presidents have had considerably less military experience with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump never serving in the armed forces, and George W. Bush serving in the Air National Guard but never seeing combat.
Just over half of all U.S. presidents have served in Congress, either in the House, Senate or both. Being a member of Congress has been a popular profession for aspiring presidents since the time of James Madison and through the modern era. The most recent Congress member to win the presidency was Barack Obama, who served in the Senate from 2005-2008.
Congress member is the most common occupation for the current Democratic candidates running for president, with more than two-thirds of them having served in the chamber.
More than a third of all presidents have served as a state governor, gaining experience in how to run a government bureaucracy and interact with a legislature. The first governor to win the White House was Thomas Jefferson from the state of Virginia, who took office in 1801. In recent years, it has become even more common for a governor to become president, with four out of the past seven presidents hailing from their state’s top executive position: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Only three previous presidents have also served as a mayor, and none of them went directly from the mayor’s office to the White House. Andrew Johnson was mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee; Grover Cleveland served as mayor of Buffalo, New York; and Calvin Coolidge led the city of Northampton, Massachusetts. All of them went on to serve as state governors before becoming president.
The Democratic candidates who have served as mayor have presided over cities of varying sizes, ranging from Burlington, Vermont (population 42,000), where Bernie Sanders was mayor from 1981-1989, to New York City (population 8.6 million), where Bill de Blasio is the current mayor.
Of the 14 vice presidents who assumed the presidency, eight of them did so because of the death of a president, while one of them (Gerald Ford) took office after the resignation of a president (Richard Nixon). While having served as vice president is generally seen as an asset to winning a presidential election, several recent vice presidents were unable to capture the White House, including Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who served under Barack Obama, is trying to capture the presidency after waiting out a term. The only other person to do this is Richard Nixon, who served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president from 1953-1961 but did not win the presidency until 1968.
Of the eight presidents who served as Cabinet secretaries, six of them served as secretary of state, including the nation’s first Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. In the early 1800s, the position was considered a launching pad to the presidency, but after James Buchanan was secretary of state from 1845 to 1849 and later assumed the presidency, no other president has served in both roles. Nowadays, Cabinet positions are no longer seen as a pathway to the presidency, with only two other Cabinet secretaries – Taft who was secretary of war and Hoover who served as commerce secretary – ever assuming the presidency.
Democratic candidate Julian Castro was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama.
Of the six presidents who have no previous political experience, three of them were military generals: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer who made millions while William Howard Taft was an attorney and judge who, after his presidency, became a Supreme Court justice. The most recent president who never held a publicity elected office prior to entering the White House is Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman.
In the early days of the country, Virginia produced the most presidents with the first four out of five presidents hailing from the state. However throughout U.S. history, New York claims the most presidents at seven, including current president Donald Trump, while Ohio follows with six presidents. Not every state can claim a president; only 18 states have been home to a commander in chief. While there are various ways to calculate a president’s home state, including by birthplace or longest state of residence, in this graphic, the home state is determined as the one with which the president is most affiliated.
The Democratic candidates hail from 10 different states, with the most coming from New York (de Blasio, Gillibrand, Steyer, and Yang) and California (Harris, Swalwell and Williamson). Several of the candidates are from states that have never produced a president, including Montana (Bullock), Vermont (Sanders), and Delaware (Biden).