Experience of every U.S. President

After Jeb Bush dropped out of the 2016 presidential race last week, a few of my Jeb-supporting friends voiced concern over the rest of the GOP. Their argument, in large part, was that presidents should serve as a Governor, or at the very least as some sort of executive so that they are prepared for the task of running a country. Some say no one-term senator (like Rubio and Cruz) should be president.

On its face, that seems like an arbitrary litmus test, especially for Republicans to make. For starters, Lincoln was a one-term Congressman. Jimmy Carter, the right’s favorite pre-Obama whipping boy, was a Governor.

That got me wondering about the experience of past presidents, so I did some digging. The chart below* shows the public service record of every president as well as the seven remaining 2016 candidates.



The average experience is 14.6 years. Fifteen presidents were at one time VPs (or in the case of Grover Cleveland, a previous POTUS). Nineteen were senators. Twenty-one were governors. And I don’t want to get members of the General Assembly too excited, but 22 were in the state legislature!

The choices for president this year run the gamut. On one extreme, you have Donald Trump and Ben Carson with no political experience. On the other, you have Bernie Sanders, who would have more years in elected office than any president ever. Hillary would be 10th followed closely by Kasich. Marco Rubio would be smack in the middle at 23rd, tied with JFK and ahead of Bill Clinton.

The thing is, experience isn’t predictive of success. Like, at all. It’s not included here, but I also compared their years of experience with an aggregate, non-partisan ranking of the presidents. It’s all over the place. Some of the best presidents (Wilson, the Roosevelts, and Lincoln) had some of the least experience. Some of the worst (Johnson, Tyler, Buchanan) had the most experience. And everything in between.

It’s just like head coaching in sports. Whether you were an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, college coach, or other, there’s no real way to predict how successful you will be as a head coach. We might know what kind of offense and defense you will run and the type of players you will seek to put on your roster. Those things could and should be considered. But there are too many external factors, like who your quarterback is, what division you play in, your team’s willingness to spend money, to determine whether you’d be a “good” head coach or not.

The thing that we need to understand about elections is that Americans by and large pick the person they like and then backfill these lesser details. You usually don’t pick Jeb Bush because you want a governor to be president. You pick Jeb Bush and because he is a governor, you say that you want a governor to be president.

After all, if elections were just resumé contests, it wouldn’t be very fun.



* Some footnotes for you people who like such things.

  1. “Other” offices include Mayor (Cleveland, Coolidge, Johnson, Sanders); Lt. Governor (Coolidge, Harding); state Attorney General (Bill Clinton, Van Buren); State Comptroller (Fillmore); Court of Appeals (Taft); and First Lady (Hillary Clinton). Sorry to the surveyors, sheriffs, and other minor offices that I chose not to include in the list.
  2. Sorry Hillary haters, but I had to include FLOTUS in the Other category.
  3. Military service is shown only for presidents who held no other elected office (Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower).
  4. The Continental Congress is not included.


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