Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Experience and the VP slot

There have been a lot of discussions in presidential campaigns about experience. How much experience is necessary to be a successful president? A successful Vice President? And what experience is relevant?

In this election, the experience question was most dramatically raised in the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton ran ads suggesting Barack Obama did not have the experience necessary to answer the phone at 3 am. And over the summer, the McCain campaign attacked Obama as a celebrity with no experience. Now that Sarah Palin has been announced as McCain's VP nominee, the question has been raised again: does Palin have enough experience and the right experience to take over for McCain should the unthinkable happen?

First, let me say there is no constitutional mandate outlining the proper mix of experience. The only qualifications concern residency and age. That's it. The entire debate, then, is about the popular perception that experience matters and that some experience is better than other experience.

I was curious. How much experience did Sarah Palin have compared to other VP nominees in the twentieth century? And how does her experience as an executive--which the McCain folks argue is particularly important and useful--match up against other nominees?

I researched the backgrounds of each Republican and Democratic nomineee for Vice President, beginning in 1900. I looked only at elected office experience. Congressional scholars use this to define a quality challeger, so I employ the same definition here. I make no claims about the quality or type of experience in this analysis. That's up for you, the reader, to judge. I simply want to look at one easily quantifiable measure of experience. This chart here compares the Democratic nominee (in blue) to the Republican nominee (in red) in each election cycle:

Note that Palin is on the low end of elected office experience. Lloyd Bentsen is the clear winner here: he had more than 40 years of elected office experience when Mike Dukakis nominated him in 1988. Among Republicans, Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis had 34 years of elective office experience when he stood for re-election in 1932. Overall, Republican nominees averaged 13 years of experience while Democratic nominees averaged 16. Palin's 12 years of elective office experience is just below the mean for Republicans, but she is certainly not the least experienced nominee in the 20th century. Among Republicans, Charles Dawes and Frank Knox had no elective office experience. FDR's second Vice President, Henry Wallace, was a well-respected agricultural expert and Agriculture Secretary, but similarly had no elected office experience.

Palin does stand out, however, in the amount of executive experience she has as a major party VP nominee. The modal category is zero--meaning most Vice Presidential candidates have zero executive experience. Look at this chart:

Republican and Democratic VP nominees average, collectively, about 2 years of executive experience. Again, we are only looking at elected executive experience, so Cabinet level offices do not count here. Among Republican nominees, only Earl Warren and John Bricker have more executive experience than Palin. Thomas Marshall, after serving a term as Woodrow Wilson's VP, had the same amount of executive experience as Palin does: eight years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting post with statistics that would not be presented in most media. I personally don't think experience matters as much as most people might, but that's not to say I think Palin is 'qualified.' As to the quality of that experience, which you admitted you would diplomatically leave out of the equation, I think Jon Stewart makes a clever allusion to this: