Americans frequently express the sentiment that they’re tired of politics as usual. But I chuckle when I hear people pining for a president from outside of the political spectrum. Why? Because we have little history of electing such people. Not that we haven’t had people like that run, but because they by and large get little, if any support.
Historical precedents mean only so much. We sometimes treat them like they are inviolate rules — until the supposedly impossible happens. But we can get a general idea of how things work in real life by looking at how they have worked traditionally.
Like it or not, the U.S. political system is a strong two-party system. Third party candidates can make a difference and have helped determine the outcomes of presidential elections in the past. But under our current system it is very unlikely that a third party candidate could capture the White House.
And while the argument that Lincoln was a third party candidate might have some technical merit, it is not substantially correct. The Republican Party largely rose from the ashes of the dying Whig Party, although it also received a healthy infusion from anti-slavery Democrats. The upshot is that by the time Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860, there were still only two major parties.
Presidential Nominee Qualifications
A quick glance at past presidential elections helps us understand what Americans look for in their major presidential nominees. My analysis leads me to believe that Americans generally want elected political experience and/or executive experience. The higher the level of this experience and the more expansive it is, the better. Appointed political experience can help the resume. Military Generals are appointed, but they operate in both executive and political theaters. 12 former generals have served as president. But only three of them had no other major political experience. Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower all were very successful high-profile war generals.
But military experience is not an absolute must-have. Nor does the person with the highest rank or greatest military experience always carry the day. While 18 of our presidents have been commissioned officers below the General/Admiral rank, and Buchanan was a lowly private, 10 of our 42 presidents served no military duty. (Yes, we have had 43 presidencies, but only 42 presidents because Cleveland served his two terms separated by Benjamin Harrison’s term.) I don’t know how to rate FDR for military service. He served ably in the appointed position of Asst. Secretary of the Navy, but he never served as a soldier, sailor, or marine. Still, it is interesting to note that in 25 of 54 elections, the loser had no military experience.
If you delve into the resumes of the two main contestants in each presidential election, you will discover that many of them had deep elective political experience and often executive experience as well. We tend to nominate people that have served as Vice President, state Governor, and/or U.S. Senator. 13 presidents previously served as VP. 18 have been governors. 15 have been senators. Although 19 have been U.S. Congressional Representatives, we tend not to nominate people for whom this has been their highest office. I surmise that this is because the former three offices listed require broad-based appeal, while representatives can often be elected by appealing to relatively narrow interests.
However there are some notable exceptions to these rules. Madison, Lincoln, and Garfield had not served at a level higher than representative prior to their election to the presidency. But Garfield was a famous Civil War general, so he should probably not be included in this grouping. Madison was largely regarded as the Father of the Constitution. During his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, others often looked to him for guidance as to how the republic was really supposed to run. He had also served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State. This was a much more powerful position at that time and was second in line to succeed the president. So Madison was a special case.
Lincoln was elected in favor of more experienced opponents when the Democratic Party split on the slavery issue. Southern Democrats defected to vote for Breckenridge rather than vote for Douglas, who had a cagey approach to the slavery issue.
Two even more significant exceptions are Taft and Hoover, who had never served in the military and had never held elected office prior to becoming president. But both of them also ended up losing after a single term. Taft had been TR’s close and trusted friend. Although he never personally aspired to the presidency, the wildly popular Roosevelt succeeded in anointing Taft as his successor, only to cause Taft’s defeat four years later. Taft had been a judge and later became U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, a job he actually did want.
Hoover’s candidacy is somewhat more of an enigma. A self-made tycoon, he had been a political insider for years. He eventually served as Commerce Secretary under Harding and Coolidge. He often overstepped the bounds of this position and used it as a platform to achieve national prominence. The press loved this progressive GOP wonder-boy. His Democratic opponent, former NY Governor Alfred E. Smith, came across unsympathetically to voters. Not only did anti-Catholic prejudice play against him, his heavy New York accent played badly with voters who heard him on their newfangled radios. Thanks to stereotyping, he sounded like a mobster. Hoover ran on the coattails of Coolidge’s successful presidency and won by a landslide. Four years later with the country mired in the Great Depression, FDR beat him hands down.
I would argue that only three past presidents have had resumes that appear wanting per the criteria I have listed: Lincoln, Taft, and Hoover. There are obvious reasons why each of these men was able to overcome this hurdle, although, those circumstances may not have been clear at the time each announced his candidacy. 39 of our 42 presidents have had the kind of experience I think Americans want.
High Quality Losers
The resumes of presidential election losers are often quite glowing as well. Sitting presidents have lost nine elections. The loser in each of eight elections has served as VP. Men that have served as governor have lost 18 times. Senators: 21 times. Representatives: 21 times. (This was the highest office for five of these.) Generals: 9 times.
My point is that for the most part, the people that receive the vast majority of the votes in our political system are people that have significant elected political and/or executive experience. Americans tend to shy away from people who have served no higher than congressional representative. Occasionally a popular war general can capture the White House. Our system is flexible enough to consider potential candidates that lie outside of these general rules, but they only rise to the top under extraordinary situations.
At this point, some will naturally want to point out all of the flaws in our political system and present utopian ideas about how it should work. That discussion is important and interesting, but it is outside of the scope of this post. I am not writing about how it should work; I’m writing about how it does work.
2008 Candidate Qualifications
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how current presidential hopefuls measure up. By my count there are 19 announced Democrat and GOP candidates plus five that will probably become candidates, for a total of 24 (see Wikipedia article). Military service appears not to be a strong point among this group, as 14 have no military experience. Wesley Clark (unannounced) has been a general, but he could hardly be called a popular wartime general. Five have been commissioned officers, with former Vietnam War POW John McCain holding the highest rank (Navy Capt.) among these. Ron Paul was an Air Force flight surgeon. Three have served in the enlisted ranks. Of these, Chuck Hagel (unannounced) is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who lost part of a leg in combat. Of the three Democrat and three GOP current front runners, only McCain has served in the military.
As far as political experience, Al Gore (unannounced) has been VP. Five have been governors. 11 have been senators. 10 have been representatives. Rep is the highest elected position for five of these, unless you count Speaker of the House as a higher position for Newt Gingrich (unannounced). Rudy Giuliani has been mayor of New York City, which some argue is a bigger job than governor of many states. Fair Tax advocate John Cox appears to be unable to get elected to anything. Setting him aside, this is a pretty impressive group of candidates.
By historical criteria, the five current/former representatives mentioned above are unlikely to garner their party’s nomination. It’s possible that some of them could be considered for the VP slot, but looking over the lot (Gingrich, Hunter, Kucinich, Paul, Tancredo) I wouldn’t bet on it. With the possible exception of Gingrich, who would be a huge risk, none of the other candidates offer his party’s eventual winner any substantial reason to select him.
Giuliani also goes against historical precedents. We have never elected a president whose highest office has been mayor of a major city. (I don’t care what the polls say right now.) VP material? Probably not. He doesn’t play second fiddle very well. Could Giuliani pull a Hoover? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but I’m not sure all the stars are aligned to make that happen. The picture will become much clearer after Christmas.
Statistically, the 10 candidates whose highest elected position has been U.S. Senator have a 27% chance of becoming president, if nominated. 15 former senators have served as president, but 11 of these were also VP, military general, governor, or lieutenant governor. The VP slot is much friendlier to senators without executive experience than the top slot. Of course, one of these people could end up becoming president after eight years of VP service. Or not. Remember Al Gore? Of course, some political watchers believe he still has a chance.
What about the five current/former governors that are running (Gilmore, Huckabee, Richardson, Romney, and T. Thompson)? 18 of our 42 presidents’ have been governors, but seven of these were a VP, senator, and/or general as well. Of the group of five, only Gilmore served in the military. Richardson has been a congressional representative. Thompson has been Health and Human Services Secretary. The rest have to point to other non-governmental qualifications.
Of course, as I mentioned two months ago, the compacted primary election setup is likely to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of presidential election prognostication. Until quite recently, party nominees were largely selected in back room deals and high-level party wrangling. The new method is not only far more costly; it also interjects the will of the rank and file voter much earlier in the process.
It is quite possible that the old rules of political resume building no longer apply the way they once did. The resume screeners used to be big-wig party insiders. Now the screeners are the average party voters. Candidates now have to appeal to a much broader group that may have very different criteria than the people in the smoke filled rooms.
I can’t even begin to guess what voters will think are the most important candidate qualifications come super-duper-mega-Tuesday next February. Polling will certainly give the various camps somewhat of an inside track on this, but my guess is that when the statistical analysts crunch all of the numbers following the initial primary elections, a lot of politicos will be sitting around saying, “Boy, I did not see that coming.” And even then we won’t know if it is a one-time fluke or a new rule of the road.
In the meantime, let’s not forget historical precedent. While party machines probably now have less say in the selection of the eventual nominees, it has always been the people that have had the final say through our republican system. And the people have not changed that much. It is likely that much historical precedent will carry over even in the face of the new rules. On the other hand, the disclaimer they put in every mutual fund prospectus about past performance not being indicative of future performance applies here as well.