American voters hope to elect presidents who will achieve foreign and domestic success. As a result, presidential candidates frequently discuss their prior experiences eager to convince voters that, if elected, they will perform successfully. While citizens intuitively assume that "experienced" candidates make better presidents, they do not know which prior experiences help presidential candidates excel or falter once in office. (1) Even scholars are unsure what the experience qualifications are for a successful president. For example, would a president have more success if she or he had previously served as a U.S. senator or as a state governor? Would prior military experience lead to success as commander-in-chief? While voters may choose presidents largely for their policy preferences, party affiliation, or persona, all of these may amount to naught if inexperience leaves the president too inept to lead.
Unfortunately, we currently have no way of knowing which experiences benefit presidential performance, or in what ways. For example, presidency scholars often provide conflicting accounts when discussing presidents' prior experiences. Furthermore, quantitative comparisons between a president's prior experience and his in-office performance consistently find no link. In fact, the most recent analysis plainly states "there is no evidence that political experience improves the likelihood of strong presidential performance" (Balz 2010, 487).
This leaves us with a conundrum: prior experience is often associated with success, but these accounts frequently conflict. At the same time, quantitative comparisons find no correlation between experience and subsequent performance. Given the high stakes in choosing presidents, it is imperative to resolve this confusion by deriving a rationale for understanding which experiences lead presidents to success. Therefore, we develop theoretical expectations and test these by comparing presidents' prior experiences to their in-office performances.
This article proceeds as follows: we first review the prior studies comparing experience to job performance. We identify shortcomings in their designs and propose remedies for these. Then, based upon Richard Neustadt's work and findings from the organizational sciences literature, we present expectations explaining which prior experiences affect presidential performance and in what ways. We begin by comparing each measure of experience individually to each measure of presidential performance--this provides the most parsimonious method of demonstrating the effect of experience on performance. Then, to buttress this evidence, we provide models that test different measures of experience against each other and include factors commonly thought to affect presidential ratings such as the economy, war, and each president's place in history. In accord with our expectations, we find that several positions, including military and gubernatorial positions, substantively predict performance. Beyond answering a perennial question, we contribute to a greater theoretical understanding of prior experience and the presidency.
Does Experience Matter to a President?
This is a recurring question in American politics. (2) Presidential candidates frequently discuss their prior experiences in order to convince voters that they can perform successfully if elected. For example, in 1980, then-candidate Ronald Reagan highlighted his prior experience as governor in attempting to unseat Jimmy Carter:
I have not had the experience the President has had in holding that office, but I think in being Governor of California, the most populous State in the Union--if it were a nation, it would be the seventh-ranking economic power in the world--I, too, had some lonely moments and decisions to make. I know that the economic program that I have proposed for this Nation in the next few years can resolve many of the problems that trouble us today. I know because we did it there. (10/28/1980) (3) In the 1960 election against sitting Vice President Richard Nixon, Democratic contender John Kennedy compared his congressional experiences to that of his opponent:
I have been in the Congress for 14 years. I have voted in the last 8 years, and the Vice President was presiding over the Senate and meeting other responsibilities; I have met decisions over 800 times on matters which affect not only the domestic security of the United States, but as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (9/26/1960) (4) Regardless of the prior experiences discussed, the public has little guidance in deciphering the validity of these appeals.
Political commentators, for example, often cite presidents' prior experiences, but these accounts appear to be based on little more than the commentator's political preferences. For example, the conservative Charles Krauthammer (2010) argued that President Obama, despite having served in the Senate, was too inexperienced because "he never ran so much as a candy store." Liberal Bill Maher (2011) argued that George W. Bush, despite having served six years as Texas governor, had the "thinnest resume anyone had ever seen." Traditional news sources do little better than commentators. For example, in 1944, the New York Times reported "experience in public service must be an asset to the president." The same article contradictorily said, "the success of our presidents in the past has not depended to any great extent on their ... previous public service" (Krock 1944). Sixteen presidential terms later, the March 10, 2008 cover of Time carried as an open question "How Much Does Experience Matter?" The ensuing article provided ambiguous historical examples intermingled with light quips. (5) Readers were left thinking that experience might matter; then again, it might not.
Given that news sources provide little direction, one would hope the scholarly literature could. Unfortunately, focus has been invested elsewhere. For example, scholars have studied prior political experience to understand the paths to presidential candidacy, nominations, and victories (Aldrich 1980b; Brown 2009a, 2009b; Burden 2002; Peabody, Ornstein, and Rohde 1976; Schlesinger 1966). These studies have little to say about whether those experiences lead to success after the election. In another line of inquiry, scholars have examined presidents' success at achieving legislative goals and influencing the national agenda (Barrett and Eshbaugh-Soha 2007; Bond, Fleisher, and Wood 2003; Canes-Wrone 2001a, 2001b, 2004, 2006; Canes-Wrone and de Marchi 2002; Covington, Wrighton, and Kinney 1995; Edwards 2009; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2005; Kernell 2006; Wood and Edwards 1999). This work provides much insight into the policy process. This current article, however, employs a different set of variables, because we seek to explain a broader definition of success.
When scholars have sought to explain presidents' success in broad terms, they have focused on a variety of causes outside of previous experience. These have included the forces of history (Blessing 2003; Nice 1984; Simonton 1984; Skowronek 2008), institutions (Crockett 2002; Hager and Sullivan 1994; Hart, Tindall, and Brown 2009; Hastedt and Eksterowicz 1993; Moe 1993; Pika 1981-82), and personal traits not necessarily linked to prior experience (George and George 1998; Greenstein 2009; Pfiffner 2004; Shogan 2009; Simonton 2006).
When presidency scholars do address the impact of experience on performance, the accounts are often contradictory. On one hand, some presidency scholars argue a president's prior experience is vastly important. For instance, Richard Neustadt (1990, 208) argues
The search [for a president] should encompass his previous employment. Since nothing he has done will be precisely like the presidency, nothing in his past can be conclusive. But, the nearer the comparisons the more suggestive. Hence, the relevance for him--and us--of previous experience, its prime utility, overshadowing acquired skills: it tests his temperament, with luck it strengthens his perspective on himself (and gives us some on him). On the other hand, other presidency scholars argue that a president's past experience is not so important. For instance, Paul Quirk (2010, 121), while arguing that the president requires a certain expertise that "can be acquired only through substantial and recent experience in Washington," claims that the lack of this experience "need not pose much difficulty for a president. Like any technical skill, which in a sense it is, the necessary expertise can easily be hired." Thus, there exists disagreement about the importance of experience for presidents.
Beyond this general disagreement, scholars frequently provide contradictory accounts linking particular presidents' experiences to their performance. For instance, Richard Neustadt pans Dwight Eisenhower's military service:
[Eisenhower] lacked Roosevelt's experience. Instead he had behind him the irrelevancy of an army record compiled for the most part outside of Washington. (1990, 138) Fred Greenstein, on the other hand, points to military service to explain Eisenhower's Success:
No other chief executive has entered the White House with his organizational experience, and none has put comparable effort into structuring his presidency. (2009, 55) Stephen Skowronek argues that Lyndon Johnson's successes in civil rights legislation as president stemmed from his legislative experience:
Johnson's firsthand experience of the reconstructive politics under Roosevelt would seem most critical in determining how he handled the practical dissolution of the distinction between articulating and reconstructing, completing and discarding, the received premises of national politics. (2003, 336) Greenstein, on the other hand, argues that legislative experience did not benefit Johnson's presidency:
Nothing in Johnson's legislative career had provided him with a conception of how to...