Prior Experience Predicts Presidential Performance

Article excerpt

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. …