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Prior Experience and the Presidency

Ronald Reagan celebrates gubernatorial win in 1966.  Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Reagan celebrates his gubernatorial win in 1966.  He also served as Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve before becoming president.

Presidential elections are a gamble. Which candidate, once in the Oval Office, will perform better than the rest? Which will best steward the economy? Which will best protect us from foreign enemies? There is no crystal ball that can predict presidential performance with any certainty. Unfortunately, voters are left to their best guesses. 

Or, are they? Are there ways that we can predict which candidates are better suited for the job than others? What set of variables could predict how well a candidate might perform as president if elected? Given the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune, would even the best set of predictors get us very far? In our forthcoming study at Presidential Studies Quarterly, Arthur Simon and I seek to answer these questions.

On the presidential campaign trail, candidates extol their prior experiences in an effort to convince voters they are prepared for the job. In the current Republican race, Mitt Romney has made his experience in business and at the Olympics a centerpiece of his campaign. Newt Gingrich’s campaign has focused on the former Speaker’s successes during the 1990s, and Rick Santorum’s campaign has extolled the former Senator’s conservative voting record in Congress. Candidates have even highlighted experiences they have not had: Herman Cain’s campaign highlighted Cain’s lack of governmental experience as best preparing him. Historically, both the candidates and the media spend a great deal of time discussing experience. In 2008, many were concerned with Barack Obama’s lack of experience. Going further back, candidates are generally quick to discuss experience:

“There's only been one governor [in Texas] ever elected to back-to-back four-year terms, and that was me.” George W. Bush, 2000

“I have met decisions over 800 times on matters which affect not only the domestic security of the United States, but as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.” John F. Kennedy, 1960

But, how can we know if any prior experiences matter for a candidate once in office? Perhaps it is best to begin by thinking more generally about “experience.” If we needed to hire an employee, what prior experiences would we seek? The most likely answer is prior experience that matches the new job. So, if we were hiring a pizza chef, we would want to hire someone who had previously made pizza. Likewise, we would also want to avoid prior experiences that clashed with the new job; we would not hire a barbeque pit master because that person might inappropriately apply lessons from their previous job into the pizza kitchen. In sum, prior experiences similar to the new job are likely to lead to success, while prior experiences dissimilar to the news task are likely to lead to failure. This logic is intuitive, and a long line of studies supports this reasoning. 

Let’s move away from the pizza parlor and back to the White House. What prior experiences are similar to serving as president, and which are dissimilar? We know that the presidency is an executive position and that the president’s first stated duty in the Constitution is to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Thus, we might focus on candidates with gubernatorial and military experience. With this in mind, we designed a study to test this line of reasoning.

We first collected the prior experiences of the modern presidents. We focus on the “modern” presidency (beginning with William McKinley) because the presidency has changed drastically over the years, and, the experiences that may have made a president perform well in the 1790s may not provide much for a president now. We then measured each president’s performance while in office – to do this, we used C-SPAN’s historical rankings of presidents derived from surveys of scholars. The C-SPAN measures rate the presidents on ten dimensions of leadership as well as overall.

We compared the measures of experience to the measures of success in office, and found, just as our reasoning suggests, prior experiences similar to the presidency provide strong positive predictors. Former governors, specifically governors of large states and particularly those with active duty military experience, tend to perform better than those without these experiences, in the aggregate. These results suggest that experience does matter, and in predictable ways. 

However, we also found some results that, while supporting our logic, defy commonly held notions. Our results suggest that private sector experience, most legislative experience, graduate degrees, professorships, and campaign experience mean little once in the oval office. Exit polls during this primary season suggest that much of Romney’s appeal stems from his business background. But, being CEO of a venture capital firm is nothing like being president, and our results suggest that Romney’s private sector work will help him little. The good news for Romney is his gubernatorial experience. Both Newt Gingrich’s and Rick Santorum’s governmental experiences offer little because, contrary to commonly accepted intuition, service in the United States House and Senate are not positive predictors of presidential performance. In short, service in a legislative body, even in a leadership position, is not like service as an executive who leads a nation. 

A few caveats. First, we compared the prior experiences of presidents to how well they performed. This assumes that they were able to win the nomination and presidency. Rick Perry, who has both gubernatorial and military experience, has prior experiences found to be important once in the White House; but, this is irrelevant given that Perry was unable to win a single primary (or even a debate for that matter). Second, our results identify experiences that have led to success in the past; and, we are quick to point out that the public is not ensured a successful president simply because a candidate enters the office with the proper experiences. To quote John Kennedy once more, “There’s no certain road to the Presidency. There are no guarantees that if you take one road or another that you will be a successful President.”

Joseph E. Uscinski is assistant professor, and Arthur Simon is senior lecturer, in the political science department at the University of Miami. 

Comments

Gentlemen: Prior experience is a very valuable, but only sometimes accurate, indicator of fitness for the presidency.  In TR, FDR, DDE and JFK you have four whose LIFE experiences pointed strongly in the direction of competence.  All of them were tested in their formative years with life-straining experiences; all of them showed much ability to learn from them.  In this respect their personal histories are quite instructive and at times, poignant.
Caution comes with Hoover, excellent business experience, but not much depth in life.  Same for Wilson: a look at his experience at Princeton should have been ample warning.  Your last JFK quote is dead on.

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