The declining importance of experience for president

It used to be, at least beginning around the second half of the twentieth century, that people ran for president after having paid their dues by spending some time in major elected office, such as governor or member of the US House and Senate. There were just two exceptions. Dwight Eisenhower was one but he was a special case. Jimmy Carter was the other, becoming president after serving just one term as governor of Georgia.

One of the interesting developments of the 2008 election seems to have been in changing the perception that experience was important, and it seems to have opened the door to people running for president after just a short stint in a major elected office. After all, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was after he had been elected a US senator only in 2004. Although his chief opponent in that race, Hillary Clinton, had been elected to the US senate only in 2000, her first elected office, she still tried to use his relative lack of experience against him (remember the 3:00 am phone call ad?) and so did John McCain (until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and torpedoed that argument) but Obama won anyway. Palin clearly holds the record for the least experience but the enthusiasm with which her candidacy was received seems to have sent the message that the party does not care that much about it.

The consequence of this shift is seen more clearly on the Republican side. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran for president after just one four-year stint as the governor of Massachusetts. Jon Huntsman was just 52 and had served just one four-year term as governor of Utah. Michele Bachman had served in the House of Representatives only since 2006. And who can forget Herman Cain who had no elected experience whatsoever? But in those primaries, we did see some more experienced people such as Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.

But if take a look at the current crop of people who are rumored to be considering a run to be that party’s potential presidential nominee in 2016, you will see that they are all young and almost all with little or no experience.

Paul Ryan (age 43) was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, and thus is the veteran in the group with the longest resume.

Bobby Jindal (age 41) was elected to the US House of Representatives from Louisiana in 2004 and became governor in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.

Marco Rubio (age 41) was elected to the US senate in 2010.

Rand Paul (age 50) was elected to the US senate from Kentucky in 2010.

Ted Cruz (age 42) was elected to the US senate form Texas only in 2012, making him the person with the shortest time in major office.

It is likely that Rick Santorum (age 54) will run again. But when you have a crazy person like him in the role of the elder statesman, you should worry that your party is in trouble.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Remember that even though Hillary only had one term in the Senate, she had some major experience during her time as first lady, including basic writing his defeated health plan. If she runs in 2016, looking purely at the balance of domestic and foreign background, she’s going to have the most depth of background of any candidate in recent times.

  2. says

    Regarding Hillary, remember that in the early days of the country, for a lot of the presidents their previous office was Secretary of State. (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J. Q. Adams.) Of course, that is irrelevant to anything these days.

  3. other dave says

    Are you conflating what you classify as “paying ones dues and gaining experience” with the impact of WWII and the Cold War on Presidential Politics and the demand that only a WWII vet could stand up to the Russkies and get elected

  4. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Dwight Eisenhower was one but he was a special case.

    “Special cases” can lead to interesting effects. When the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister of the UK he is said to have described his first cabinet meeting: “Quite astonishing. I sat them down and gave them their orders and they supposed we were going to talk about them!”

    Experience may be a disadvantage. In a rapidly-changing world, experience means having learned to respond to past- irrelevant- situations and could interfere with peoples’ ability to judge and respond to situations.

  5. Ravi Venkataraman says

    By the way, Ted Cruz is ineligible to run for President since he was born n Canada.

  6. ah58 says

    Thank the FSM if that’s true. It’s a tossup between Cruz and Santorum as to which is crazier.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I agree that experience in elected office is not that important. But it is interesting how its significance has decreased so rapidly.

  8. Jared A says

    I think it is fair to include non-elected office as experience. In this case Huntsman’s credentials look quite a bit better since his political appointments weren’t mere sinecures.

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