Experience has been a dominant issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. In what initially was thought to be an open contest, the range and types of candidate experience varied substantially: sitting and former senators, representatives, and governors, a former mayor, and a first lady. By April, the campaign had narrowed to three candidates: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a tight race for the Democratic nomination and John McCain having secured the Republican nomination.
The contrast in Washington-based experience among these three is striking. McCain leads in elective service with four years in the House of Representatives and just over 20 years in the Senate. Clinton is in her eighth year in the Senate, Obama in his fourth year.
Experience prior to elective government service in Washington is also identified as relevant for accrediting candidacies. McCain's military background, including his time as a prisoner of war, is judged to be authentication for serving as commander in chief. It was while serving in the Illinois state senate that Obama announced his opposition to the Iraq War, arguably demonstrating his judgment even before election to the U.S. Senate. And Clinton's time as first lady (1993-2001) is relied on as providing superior preparation to be chief executive on "day one"--essentially making her an heir apparent akin to a vice president.
Each of these rationales for candidacy and election has strengths and weaknesses. McCain has length of service, but he has never held a major executive position and would be 72 years old when sworn in. Obama has the freshness of youth but, equally, limited time as a U.S. senator and no elective executive background. Clinton's reliance on heir apparentness intimates familiarity with White House operations but raises questions about a first lady's role and accountability in making decisions.
The stress on experience justifies a review of the historical record. This article treats these questions: Is the 2008 presidential election an open contest? How common are open contests? When have they occurred? What are the types of heirs apparent as candidates? What explains the increase in vice presidents as heirs apparent? Which presidencies have been successful? How might the historical experience of experience apply to 2008? The answers to these questions lead to this conclusion: The experience that appears to count for a successful presidency is that realized in, not near, the Oval Office.
Historical Record of Heirs
One must drop back to 1952 for a race lacking either an incumbent president seeking reelection or a sitting vice president running as an heir apparent candidate. Is the 2008 presidential election an open contest? It has been labeled as such, but Hillary Clinton's version of heir apparentness suggests otherwise. Her time as first lady is said to validate her candidacy to an extent equal to, perhaps even greater than, what has traditionally been set forth by vice presidents. For in the Clinton case, the endorsement of and active campaigning by her ex-president husband bolster her candidacy.
Two historical facets are of interest: (1) the frequency of open contests and (2) the types of heirs apparent.
First, a definition: As understood here, an open contest is one lacking a president seeking reelection, a sitting vice president as a candidate, a candidate who has been endorsed as a successor (as, for example, Theodore Roosevelt's endorsement of William Howard Taft in 1908), or a self-declared heir apparent based on prior White House experience (as with Richard Nixon in 1968).
Open contests, by these criteria, are relatively rare. Just 11, or one-fifth, of the 55 elections since 1789 have lacked an heir apparent, discounting the first election, when George Washington was the presumptive candidate. Nine of these 11 open contests occurred in the nineteenth century, primarily because of the lesser role of the vice president then. …