The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who will be the State of the Union’s ‘designated survivor’? Data tells us. (Kind of.)

In 2007, Secretary Dikembe Mutombo of the Office of Wicked Blocks sat with first lady Laura Bush.

Let's figure out who our next president will be. No, not the 2016 thing, no one cares about that yet because it's still more than a year away. We mean the person who is the State of the Union speech's "designated survivor" -- the person asked to stay away from the Capitol on Tuesday night in case a meteor strike obliterates everyone else in government. That person, the theory goes, would assume the presidency, although there wouldn't be a whole lot to do until 535 special elections were held. Well, besides appointing a few new Supreme Court justices.

So who's it going to be? A review of past designated survivors probably makes sense.

Over the past 30 years, the survivor (including data from presidential addresses shortly after elections and removing lower-tier Cabinet members if two didn't attend) often comes from the newer Cabinet positions. That's how the order of succession to the presidency is determined, and how the above list is ordered. It's not usually the secretary of state; it's often the secretary of agriculture.

So whom will President Obama pick this time? He has chosen the energy secretary for the past two years, for what it's worth. But there are a few criteria he might consider.

He could pick one of the most popular offices.

Each of the past five presidents has asked the interior secretary not to attend the speech. Each except George W. Bush has had the agriculture secretary skip, with Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan doing it twice. Obama already has one each of those positions, so asking Ag's Tom Vilsack to be absent would move him into popular territory.

Or he could pick Ernest Moniz from the Energy Department again, to be the first recent president to choose the same office in three straight years. History made.

He could pick one of the least popular offices.

But if you want to make a splash, why not choose someone who hasn't been picked in three decades? As the American Presidency Project's data notes, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have ascended to the presidency if Godzilla had suddenly emerged from the Potomac in January 2010. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was the "designated survivor," but Clinton outranked him and wasn't there. Point being: Clinton was the first recent secretary of state who would have gotten the gig.

Obama could pick the secretaries of Treasury, Defense, Labor or Education and get them on the scoreboard for the first time. That seems like the sort of thing that might appeal to him.

(Somewhat stupidly, the Department of Homeland Security hasn't been chosen either, mostly because the office is new. But it does seem like the person who oversees FEMA could be useful if the Capitol suddenly becomes the site of a new volcano on Tuesday night.)

He could pick the person he thinks would be best at the job.

This is a judgment call, of course.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has a lot of experience in running for president, which isn't quite the same thing, but may be viewed as a point in his favor. That James Taylor thing, though.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce's Penny Pritzker have private sector experience, but that might not be the first thing Obama looks for. (Update: Also, Jewell wasn't born in the United States, which makes things trickier.) Chuck Hagel and Eric Holder both already quit, which might not be either.

The winner among the current members of the Cabinet is probably Julian Castro. He has executive experience (albeit as a mayor) and a twin brother who could be subbed in smoothly in the event of another massive emergency. Or he could pick Energy's Moniz, who looks like a founding father.

He could pick the most patient person in the Cabinet.

Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been in the Cabinet since Obama took office. What better reward than handing one of them a lottery ticket with very, very low odds but a really massive jackpot?

He could pick the person who's least useful for his speech.

Obama is pretty savvy and probably recognizes that the odds that this will be the night prophesied in "Independence Day" are pretty low.* So he might pick the member of his Cabinet who is least likely to have a key responsibility for a part of the speech itself.

So let's see. He's going to talk about his community college plan, and Duncan has been talking about education reform, so he'll probably get a seat. Same with the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense; Obama certainly will mention ISIS and the threat of terrorism. He's going to brag about the economy, so it seems as though Treasury and Commerce will make the cut. He will mention infrastructure, because he always does. So Transportation is in. Obamacare, HHS. Supporting the middle class, HUD and Labor. The environment and energy, Interior and, well, Energy.

What isn't he likely to mention? The still-high number of people on food stamps, which is Ag's domain. He probably won't spend a lot of time on Veterans Affairs, either, but having the guy tasked with repairing one of 2014's biggest administration crises have to stay away seems like a bad move. So if we had to guess, Vilsack's getting tapped. Besides, he has been to so many of these things.

Now, here's an important point. Let's say that bad potato salad at the pre-State of the Union buffet (held, as always, in Vice President Biden's rec room) wipes out all of the attendees. The person who becomes president will be the designated survivor -- unless the GOP has one of its two trump cards stay home, too. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to go, because he sits behind Obama and it's important that we watch for when he claps and whatnot. So with the simple move of having Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Senate president pro tem, stay home, we've got ourselves a Republican president.

And anyway, Hatch has been in the Senate since 1977. He has been to so many of these things, too.

Update: It's Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. So much for science! Remember, kids: Ignore science and math.

* Yes, I know that was the White House. But I bet you feel pretty smart thinking you caught me getting a detail wrong about a massively popular movie. Good job! (Pats you on head.)