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The Element of Experience

The 2016 Nominees, with Former President Bill Clinton

In Philadelphia on Monday evening, actress Eva Longoria praised Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as the “most qualified presidential candidate ever!”  Such sentiments are generally to be expected at party conventions, but can such claims be backed up by the historical record?

Admittedly, it is difficult to claim that one candidate is more “qualified” than the next, as many such judgments boil down to simple matters of personal taste.  Many backers of Donald Trump, for instance, discount the value of political experience in favor of business accomplishments. Some even take this one step farther and assert that extensive political experience, especially in Washington, D.C., should count against a candidate as it indicates that the candidate is a “career politician” likely out-of-touch with the rest of the country.

On the other side are those who believe that political experience is a necessary pre-requisite for someone seeking an office like the Oval Office. Between the intricacies of managing the federal bureaucracy, navigating international relations, and diffusing national crises and disasters, there is value in being familiar with the system and having some idea of the duties and tasks involved with presiding over the world’s most powerful government.

I went back and looked at every major general election candidate in American history and gave them a qualification score based on their past political experience.  The scale, fully described in Table 1 below, gives greater weight to federal positions and positions of greater power. Therefore, a senator gets more points than a House member, while a cabinet member gets more points than an ambassador.  I also included some points for former military officers (distinguishing positions of high rank from minor officers), bureaucratic positions, and a point for being the First Spouse.  The scale is imperfect, but it does allow for some meaningful variation that can tell us some things about pre-presidential political experience.

Contrary to Longoria’s claims, Hillary Rodham Clinton is not the most qualified presidential candidate ever. As Table 2 shows, she is not even in the top ten in American history.  That title belongs to our fifth president, James Monroe, which should not come as a surprise when looking at his resume.  Prior to running for president, Monroe served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State, Governor of Virginia (twice), US Senator for Virginia, Ambassador to both France and Great Britain, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  In addition, he achieved the rank of Colonel while fighting in the Revolutionary War.  Among contemporary candidates, George H.W. Bush scored far higher than any other candidate, including Clinton, on the strength of being a Vice President, CIA Director, member of Congress, and Ambassador to the United Nations and China. 

Clinton finds herself somewhere between the middle and upper tier of the historical rankings, tied for 28th place with Rufus King, George McClellan, Charles Evans Hughes, and Robert LaFollette, all of whom lost their elections but have carved out their own places in American history, nonetheless.

Donald Trump finds himself in a three-way tie for last place with two other businessmen (Table 3) who had never held elected office: Wendell Willkie (the Republican sacrificial lamb nominated to challenge FDR in 1940) and H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire whose third-party campaign is widely believed to have significantly aided Bill Clinton’s defeat of George H.W. Bush in 1992.  This trio is joined by several other figures in Table 2 as the least experienced candidates in American history.  None of the figures in this tier managed to win their elections, but some of them have been among the most consequential losers in American history (especially William Jennings Bryan and Perot).  The lowest-ranked winners in my rankings ended up being Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Woodrow Wilson, all with four points.

So what do these rankings tell us?  Not unexpectedly, we see all sorts of results in these rankings.  For instance, among the “most experienced” candidates, only Thomas Jefferson is regarded among our greatest presidents, by either scholars or the public, while James Buchanan is widely regarded as our worst president.  Moreover, John and John Quincy Adams are both listed among the “disjunctive” presidents by eminent presidency scholar, Stephen Skowronek, essentially being regarded as presidents who presided over the collapse of a political order.  Additionally, William Taft is remembered far more fondly for his time as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court than his tenure in the Oval Office.

On the other end of the scale, those with virtually no experience at the time of their campaigns have all lost, some rather decisively.  This fact should concern Donald Trump and his supporters. The presidents with the least amount of experience, however, have included two presidents often ranked among our greatest and our two most recent presidents.

Nothing can fully prepare one for the challenges of the Oval Office.  As President Noah Daniels on 24 put it, “Nothing about this job lends itself to simple answers, just jagged edges and moving parts. Most you won't see even coming till they've smacked you in the head.”  Even so, it seems that Americans value at least some preparation for the job, even if a lifetime of experience ultimately fails the candidate (as in the case of Buchanan). Regardless of whether or not it ultimately helps, neither major party candidate in our current election is among the most experienced candidates in American history.

Alex Welch is a Graduate Assistant with the Miller Center and a Ph.D. student with the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Table 1- Scale

Points

Position

1

State Legislature, Local Executive (Mayor, etc…), First Spouse, Minor Military Rank (below General or equivalent), State Official below Governor

2

House of Representatives, Minor Ambassadorial Appointment, Minor Federal Court Position

3

Senate, House Party Leadership, Minor Cabinet Position, Minor Bureaucratic Office

4

Senate Party Leadership, Major Ambassadorial Appointment, State (or Territorial) Governor

5

Speaker of the House, Major Cabinet Positions (State, Defense, AG, Treasury, Chief of Staff), Major Military Rank, Supreme Court Justice, Major Bureaucratic Appointment

6

Vice President, Supreme Court Chief Justice

7

Former President (incumbent or otherwise)

 

Table 2- Most Experienced Non-Former Presidents

Year

Candidate

Party

Points

1816

James Monroe

D-R

28

1824

John Quincy Adams

D-R

23

1988

George H.W. Bush

Rep

21

1856

James Buchanan

Dem

20

1908

William H. Taft

Rep

20

1800

Thomas Jefferson

D-R

19

1836

Martin Van Buren

Dem

18

1824

William H. Crawford

D-R

17

1832/1844

Henry Clay

Whig

17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 3- Least Experienced Non-Former Presidents

Year

Candidate

Party

Points

1812

DeWitt Clinton

Federalist

3

1872

Horace Greeley

Dem

2

1896, 1900, 1908

William J. Bryan

Dem

2

1904

Alton Parker

Dem

2

1912

Eugene Debs

Soc

1

1940

Wendell Willkie

Rep

0

1992, 1996

H. Ross Perot

Ref

0

2016

Donald Trump

Rep

0

 

Table 4- Scores, by election

Election

Federalist, Whig, GOP

Democrat

Major Third Party

Major Fourth Party

1788

George Washington- 5

N/A

N/A

N/A

1792

George Washington- 12

N/A

N/A

N/A

1796

John Adams- 16

Thomas Jefferson-13

N/A

N/A

1800

John Adams- 23

Thomas Jefferson- 19

Aaron Burr- 10

N/A

1804

Charles C. Pinckney- 8

Thomas Jefferson- 26

N/A

N/A

1808

Charles C. Pinckney- 8

James Madison- 7

N/A

N/A

1812

DeWitt Clinton-3

James Madison- 14

N/A

N/A

1816

Rufus King- 9

James Monroe-28

N/A

N/A

1820

N/A

James Monroe- 35

N/A

N/A

1824

John Q. Adams-23

Andrew Jackson-14

William Crawford-17

Henry Clay-12

1828

John Q. Adams- 30

Andrew Jackson- 14

N/A

N/A

1832

Henry Clay- 17

Andrew Jackson- 21

N/A

N/A

1836

William H. Harrison-10

Martin Van Buren- 18

Hugh White-4

Daniel Webster-10

1840

William H. Harrison- 10

Martin Van Buren- 25

N/A

N/A

1844

Henry Clay- 17

James K. Polk- 11

N/A

N/A

1848

Zachary Taylor- 5

Lewis Cass- 14

Martin Van Buren- 25

N/A

1852

Winfield Scott-5

Franklin Pierce-5

N/A

N/A

1856

John C. Fremont-8

James Buchanan-20

Millard Fillmore-17

N/A

1860

Abraham Lincoln-4

Stephen Douglas-8

John C. Breckenridge-8

John Bell-16

1864

Abraham Lincoln-11

George McClellan-9

N/A

N/A

1868

Ulysses S. Grant-5

Horatio Seymour-4

N/A

N/A

1872

Ulysses S. Grant-12

Horace Greeley-2

N/A

N/A

1876

Rutherford B. Hayes-11

Samuel J. Tilden-5

N/A

N/A

1880

James Garfield- 7

Winfield Hancock- 5

N/A

N/A

1884

James Blaine-16

Grover Cleveland-6

N/A

N/A

1888

Benjamin Harrison-8

Grover Cleveland-13

N/A

N/A

1892

Benjamin Harrison- 15

Grover Cleveland- 13

James B. Weaver-7

N/A

1896

William McKinley-7

William Jennings Bryan- 2

N/A

N/A

1900

William McKinley- 14

William Jennings Bryan- 2

N/A

N/A

1904

Theodore Roosevelt-22

Alton B. Parker- 2

N/A

N/A

1908

William H. Taft-20

William Jennings Bryan- 2

N/A

N/A

1912

William H. Taft- 27

Woodrow Wilson- 4

Theodore Roosevelt-22

Eugene Debs-1

1916

Charles Evans Hughes- 9

Woodrow Wilson- 4

N/A

N/A

1920

Warren G. Harding- 6

James Cox- 6

N/A

N/A

1924

Calvin Coolidge- 15

John W. Davis- 10

Robert LaFollette- 9

N/A

1928

Herbert Hoover- 8

Al Smith- 6

N/A

N/A

1932

Herbert Hoover- 15

FDR- 8

N/A

N/A

1936

Alf Landon- 4

FDR- 15

N/A

N/A

1940

Wendell Willkie- 0

FDR- 15

N/A

N/A

1944

Thomas Dewey- 5

FDR- 15

N/A

N/A

1948

Thomas Dewey- 5

Harry Truman- 18

Strom Thurmond-5

Henry Wallace- 12

1952

Dwight Eisenhower- 5

Adlai Stevenson- 4

N/A

N/A

1956

Dwight Eisenhower- 12

Adlai Stevenson- 4

N/A

N/A

1960

Richard Nixon- 12

JFK- 6

N/A

N/A

1964

Barry Goldwater- 8

LBJ- 31

N/A

N/A

1968

Richard Nixon- 12

Hubert Humphrey- 14

George Wallace- 6

N/A

1972

Richard Nixon- 19

George McGovern- 5

N/A

N/A

1976

Gerald Ford- 20

Jimmy Carter-  6

N/A

N/A

1980

Ronald Reagan- 5

Jimmy Carter- 13

John Anderson- 5

N/A

1984

Ronald Reagan- 12

Walter Mondale- 10

N/A

N/A

1988

George H.W. Bush- 21

Michael Dukakis- 5

N/A

N/A

1992

George H.W. Bush- 28

Bill Clinton-5

Ross Perot- 0

N/A

1996

Bob Dole- 14

Bill Clinton- 12

Ross Perot- 0

N/A

2000

George W. Bush- 4

Al Gore- 11

N/A

N/A

2004

George W. Bush- 11

John Kerry-5

N/A

N/A

2008

John McCain- 6

Barack Obama- 4

N/A

N/A

2012

Mitt Romney- 4

Barack Obama- 11

N/A

N/A

2016

Donald Trump- 0

Hillary Clinton- 9

Gary Johnson- 4

N/A

Date edited: 07/28/2016 (12:29PM)


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