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April 28, 2014 4:20 PM Will Inexperience Count in 2016?

By Jonathan Bernstein

This may be fun trivia and nothing more, but if Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren were to win a presidential nomination, they would each score a kind of first: Every previous nominee in the modern era has contested at least three elections before running for president. Here are the numbers:

Previous Elections Contested before Nomination

Bob Dole: 17

Michael Dukakis, Al Gore: 9

Bill Clinton: 8

George H.W. Bush, John McCain: 7

George McGovern, John Kerry, Walter Mondale: 6

Barack Obama: 5

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan: 4

George W. Bush, Mitt Romney: 3

[Notes: Sources are candidate bios at Wikipedia; it’s possible that some lower-level early elections are missing. One election per cycle per office. In other words, winning a nomination and then a general election counts as one election, as do all vice-presidential runs, presidential efforts from 1972 on that reached Iowa, and the 1968 presidential campaigns of Reagan and McGovern .]

The last major party nominee without at least three previous runs for office was Dwight Eisenhower, whose resume included conquering Europe (but that’s back in the days when conventions, and not caucuses and primaries, chose the nominees).

I’m lumping together all kinds of campaigns, but until Obama, each candidate had at least two statewide campaigns. Obama had plenty of campaign experience, but only one statewide effort. John Edwards ran a respectable campaign in 2004 with just a single previous election under his belt.

Does it matter? Just because no one has done something before doesn’t mean there’s any systematic bias against it. It’s possible that contesting lower-level elections teaches useful skills, but we don’t know that for sure.

In any case, maybe we should lower expectations for candidates with only one previous election just a notch.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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