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Prior Experience and Presidential Greatness

There is no shortage of claims about what qualifies a candidate to be president. Military service, owning a business, serving in a legislature, serving in an executive position — all of these and more are cited routinely.

But although candidates are quick to claim that their experiences will help them and although commentators often claim that certain experiences are vital (see, for example, the perennial fixation on serving as governor), the evidence for these claims is in short supply. Is presidential greatness really enhanced by certain prior experiences?

A new paper by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Arthur Simon provides an answer. Knowing that previous studies such as this one haven’t provided much evidence that experience matters, they improve on these studies in several ways. For one, they focus on “modern” presidents, a category that begins with William McKinley (although similar results would emerge if the analysis had begun with Woodrow Wilson or FDR). This is because the modern presidency is a much different job that the presidency of the 1700s and much of 1800s. Messrs. Uscinski and Simon also expand the measurement of presidential greatness to include not just overall ratings but ratings on specific dimensions from the 2009 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership. Finally, they develop more precise measures of experience. So rather than simply note whether a president served in the military (most presidents did), they count the numbers of years each president served in both wartime and peacetime.

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of presidential greatness, Messrs. Uscinski and Simon found, is military service. Serving on active duty during both wartime and peacetime, as well as the number of years of service, is associated with higher scores in many domains, including crisis leadership, international relations, and economic management.

Service in the federal government, either the executive or legislature branch, has few apparent effects. It typically matters only in narrower domains. So previous service as a federal administrator is associated, unsurprisingly, with perceived skill as an administrator. And previous service in Congress is associated with higher ratings in terms of relations with Congress.

That said, being an “outsider” is also not typically helpful. Years in public office at various levels (federal, state, local) is not significantly associated with most dimensions of greatness, but when it is, the relationships are almost always positive: experience helps. Moreover, outsiders — those with no federal experience — earn lower ratings on three dimensions.

What about those governors? As it turns out, being a governor does help, but only if you’re a governor of a large state (defined here as states with a larger number of Electoral College votes than the average state). Modern presidents who have served as governor of large states are evaluated more positively on several dimensions, including relations with Congress, public persuasion, moral authority, and a few others.

Of course, there are always challenges in this sort of analysis. The number of presidents is small, which makes it harder to separate the effects of different experiences. And one might wonder whether the relationship between experiences and “greatness” is mainly subjective. Historians could rate presidents as great leaders because they know presidents have served in the military, rather than military service causing objective “greatness” that is then (accurately) perceived by historians. However, historians would be less likely to know specific details like the number of years a president had served in active duty during war time, which may mean that they authors’ measures of experience produce somewhat more “objective” results.

Finally, it’s important to point out that the apparent effects of experience are statistical associations, but not guarantees: presidents who were governors of big states may do better, on average, but that does not assure that any particular governor will be “great.”

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”