The Daily | July 24, 2011
TEN Republicans are in the running for the presidential nomination. It looks like a big, competitive field. But don’t be fooled. More than a century’s worth of history suggests that only three candidates — former governors Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman — are electable in 2012. Of the three, only Romney looks positioned to win the nomination, so it’s really an electable field of one.
How do I know? I don’t really know for sure, of course. But I do know one of the most robust, time-tested rules in American politics: Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, the public has held presidents to a freshness test. You have to make it from first election as governor or senator — the only two offices that the public seems to regard as preparation for the White House — to either president or vice president in 14 years or less.
You can be too fresh, of course. No one is elected without experience in high elective office, except for generals who win a major war (and, for some reason, Herbert Hoover). Which only tells us what we already knew, namely that Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza guy, is not going to be president.
More surprising is that the public does not consider House service a qualifying credential. Only one person has ever been elected president from the House, and that was James A. Garfield in 1880, years before the advent of modern electioneering. (It’s true that George H.W. Bush served only in the House, but he reached the presidency by virtue of being vice president. Having had only House experience in 1980, he would probably have lost to President Jimmy Carter had he won the nomination. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, was a two-term big-state governor who was right at the 14-year line: optimal eligibility.)
Texas Rep. Ron Paul is therefore ineligible in 2012, and he’s stale anyway, a 36-year Methuselah. Rep. Newt Gingrich was House speaker, an untested credential, but even if we start his clock from his ascension to the speaker’s rostrum, he’s ineligible (18 years). Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann is fresh (six years), but she’s just a House member. Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer are former governors (New Mexico and Louisiana), but they have 18 and 25 years on their clocks. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (18 years) is in the same boat.
That leaves only Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman (10, 10 and eight years, respectively). Pawlenty is proving a lackluster campaigner and seems like an empty suit; Huntsman seems too independent and reasonable for the Republican base. Among the three, Romney is the clear front-runner, but he has his own problems with the base. Far from being overcrowded, then, the field beckons to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and especially Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a successful sitting governor who is strong with the base and less polarizing than Palin.
I suppose you’re wondering: Is the 14-year rule just a parlor game? Retrospective cherry-picking? Some have said so, but I disagree. There is nothing magical, presumably, about the number 14, as opposed to 12 or 16. But a few facts suggest that, even if the exact number is arbitrary, a genuine and perfectly sensible electoral preference underlies it: The public wants seasoned fillies, but not old mares.
Look, for example, at governors and senators (sitting and former: both can win) who run for the nomination, as opposed to just the ones who win the presidency. In candidate fields since 1976 where there was no incumbent president or vice president running — which is to say, in wide-open nominating races — governors’ and senators’ average time on the clock was, you guessed it, 14 years. No wonder, then, that candidates begin to seem stale beyond that point.
Another hint: Among governors and senators who have sought the Democratic nomination, there has not been much change. Among Republicans, however, the fresh have grown fresher: Their average experience level has dropped from 12 years in 1980 to nine years in the current field. That accords with what we know about the Republicans’ shift toward anti-government populism. They value experience less; indeed, experience, for many tea party types, is a liability. The change attracts newcomers who, in the Reagan-Ford-Dole era, would have been rejected as neophytes.
The public as a whole, too, seems to have become more open to inexperience as its annoyance with Washington has grown. In both 2000 and 2008, the public chose as president the most inexperienced governor or senator in the whole field: George W. Bush, with only six years, and Barack Obama, with a downright ridiculous four. The 2008 Democratic primary race raised the issue explicitly, “change” versus “experience,” and we all know who won the argument.
Given the trend, Republicans might want to send recruiters to New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie appeals to both the base and pragmatic reformers, and he has only three years on his clock — even less than Obama in 2008. The country may be ready for that much inexperience.