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February 06, 2014 11:50 AM Are People Already Tired of Hillary?

By Seth Masket

Kevin Drum highlights a potential problem for Hillary Clinton:

And Hillary has another problem too: By 2016 she will have been in the public eye for 24 years. That’s unprecedented. In the modern era, Richard Nixon holds the record for longest time in the public eye—about 20 years—before being elected president. The sweet spot is a little less than a decade. Longer than that and people just get tired of you. They want a fresh face. That’s largely what happened to Hillary in 2008, and it could happen again in 2016.

Is there any evidence that voters “get tired” of politicians? I don’t want to get into the whole literature on what governs presidential elections, but the simple answer is no. Candidates tend to do better if the economy is growing while their party holds the White House (or if the economy is drowning while the other party holds it). Prolonged wars can hurt their party, as can perceived ideological extremism. But overexposure?

The big case here would be Ronald Reagan, who did his first film in 1937, 43 years before getting elected president. (Okay, maybe he wasn’t “in the public eye” until “Knute Rockne All American” in 1940, but still.) But Drum discounts Reagan’s film career, so maybe we shouldn’t start the clock until Reagan begins doing his conservative speeches for General Electric in the late 1950s. That’s still over two decades before becoming president. His record warning about the dangers of Medicare was recorded in 1961. And keep in mind that in 1984, after being in the public eye for nearly half a century, Reagan won one of the biggest Electoral College landslides in history.

What about Lyndon Johnson, who was first elected to Congress in 1936? He was named a vice presidential nominee 24 years later. In 1964, 28 years after entering the public eye, he won one of the other biggest Electoral College landslides in history.

And how about Bob Dole? Republicans saw fit to make him their presidential nominee in 1996. That was a full 20 years after being the party’s vice presidential nominee and a full 36 years after first getting elected to Congress. No, he didn’t win the 1996 election, but do we think that happened because of a peacetime economic expansion under Democratic rule, or because the public wanted the “fresh face” of the incumbent president?

Same story with Walter Mondale, who had been in Congress 20 years before becoming his party’s nominee for president in 1984. Do we really think it was overexposure that caused him to lose an election to… Ronald Reagan?

Suffice it to say that there’s nothing remotely typical about Hillary Clinton’s political career; entering the public eye as First Lady, getting elected to the Senate, serving in the cabinet, and translating that all into a highly plausible presidential run is simply unprecedented. But assuming she wants and gets the Democratic nomination for 2016, she will be subject to the same forces that have determined the successes and failures of previous party nominees: prosperity, peace, moderation, and, to a lesser extent, her skills as a campaigner relative to her opponent’s. Those, and not her freshness, will determine that election’s outcome.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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