There’s something different about a couple of this week’s entrants into the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. In the mix of governors, former governors, senators and former senators, we have … a neurosurgeon and a businesswoman, neither of whom is likely to do very well with voters.
This isn’t about race or gender, although those are also differences that retired physician Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina bring to the contest. It’s about 69 percent of registered voters who are either very uncomfortable or have some reservations about a candidate running for president without prior elected experience.
Electoral results show the same pattern. Since 1948, there have been 21 declared candidates for the Republican or Democratic presidential nomination who never held state or federal office prior to running for president out of 187 total major-party candidates. One was successful: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, who ran as a decorated war hero while World War II was still fresh in voters’ minds.
Candidates with no electoral wins under their belt have included some popular figures: Activist and minister Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. Another minister-activist, Al Sharpton, tried his hand in 2004. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan gave it a go in 1992 and 1996.
Businessmen such as Steve Forbes (1996, 2000) and Herman Cain (2012) have tried and failed. Kennedy relative Sargent Shriver couldn’t get any traction in 1976, even after being a U.S. ambassador and the vice presidential nominee (on the losing ticket) in 1972.
In some of these cases, scandals or other roadblocks emerged that soured the political newcomers’ chances, but opinion wasn’t really ever in their favor.
Polling in 1976 by the Roper Center showed that 47 percent of adults thought having experience in federal government would be very important for a candidate, and another 34 percent said it was fairly important. In an ABC News/Harris poll in 1978, a 55 percent majority of registered voters said they preferred the next president to be a “competent and experienced government executive,” and 34 percent wanted “experience outside of the government bureaucracy.” (Both questions were retrieved from the Roper Center’s iPoll databank.)
Pollsters asked similar questions whenever inexperienced candidates ran over the next few decades. Results varied based on who the inexperienced candidate was, but Americans always showed a general preference for seasoned candidates over political novices. Opinion on political experience as a prerequisite for being president hasn’t changed much over the years.
Fiorina and Carson could see a brief surge in the polls, but don't read too much into that. Before his 2012 campaign was thrown off by allegations of sexual harassment, Cain surged in the polls, briefly achieving frontrunner status in late fall of 2011. Even at that time, though, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that only 7 percent said Cain was the candidate best described as “having the knowledge and experience necessary to be a good president.”
Neither 2016 outsider has much support so far. Fiorina is averaging less than 2 percent support and Carson hovers around 6 percent nationally and in the early primary states. Of course, that means little when most candidates are polling in the single digits.
What is telling is that neither is viewed as having “the right experience to be president.” In an April 2015 CNN/ORC poll, 3 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents chose Carson and 1 percent chose Fiorina as the candidate who best fit that description.
Carson and Fiorina may have some success running as Washington outsiders, but they will have to prove to voters they have the experience necessary to be president of the United States. Otherwise, they’ll go down as the 22nd and 23rd outsider candidates for a major party nomination since 1948, and Eisenhower will still be the only successful one.