As news broke that longtime Texas Governor Rick Perry was quitting the presidential race in favor of front-runners Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, who are political neophytes, it is a good time to ask the question whether GOP voters today value political experience. GOP voters do, if they have political experience themselves, according to research.
I first encountered the Rick Perry campaign while at a College Republican conference in 1990 in Dallas. At the time, he was running for Texas Agricultural Commissioner. He won, only one of two Republicans to win statewide office. Eight years later, he was elected Lt. Governor, and succeeded George W. Bush after the 2000 election. Perry went on to amass 15 years as Texas Governor, before leaving the post earlier this year to run for the White House.
But 25 years of political experience didn't seem to matter to GOP primary voters this year. They appear more enamored with the likes of businessmen Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, neither of which either served a day in political office, or even ran for office prior to this year. Last week, Perry found himself with one percent of the vote in a CNN poll, well behind the front-runners Donald Trump (32 percent) and Dr. Ben Carson (21 percent).
In fact, Perry had never polled as high as two percent in any GOP primary survey nationwide. He fared poorly in Iowa, according to Qunnipiac University's polling. And he's doing worse in New Hampshire, in the NBC News/Marist Poll.
Huffington Post politics editors Paige Lavender and Mollie Reilly cited gaffes from the 2012 Republican election primary, as well as anemic fundraising. But Perry is hardly alone. Experienced GOP candidates across the board are suffering, failing to even notch double-digits in the polls, while politically inexperienced candidates like Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina alone make up more than 50 percent of the polls, outnumbering the other 14 Republican candidates combined. Inexperienced candidates are getting six times as many votes and experienced candidates.
Is the party that touted the political experience of their own candidates in the past (Nixon, Goldwater, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr. and McCain) suddenly not valuing the political experience of a candidate? If so, why?
In the Political Research Quarterly article "Implications of Political Expertise in Candidate Trait Evaluations" Carolyn L. Funk examined whether voters evaluating candidates would value candidate "warmth" over competence. After all, didn't voters like JFK over Nixon, or Carter over Ford, or Reagan over Carter, for that matter?
But in her research, she found that when the evaluator had a knowledge of politics, that voter picked the candidate with competence over the warm and fuzzy candidate, with less experience. Funk writes:
"Some portion of the public, at least, is able to distinguish between information perceived as more and less important, and respond more favorably to competence. The more expert appear less likely to be influenced by the circus of media politics; they seem better able to attend to information held to be more important."
Perhaps as the primary season wears on, those backing more experienced candidates can hope that more educated voters will value the competence of their candidate over the show and lack of experience of the current front-runners. But it is too late for Perry, and possibly for others.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.