Unpack any public opinion poll and you will find that respondents have an extremely pessimistic view of politicians, including their own. Yet they continuously elect and reelect politicians to office time and time again. But for the highest office in the country, the Presidency, the fact that a non-politician has not been elected to the office since 1952 (Dwight Eisenhowever), is even more startling. Even calling Eisenhower a non-politician might be a stretch. After-all, being the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II is a pretty political position. So one even has to go further back to find a President who had never held political office prior (including diplomatic or Secretary posts). Franklin Pierce, our little known 14th President, a Democrat gets this honor. He served in the military as an US Army Brigadier General.
So America has seen quite a stretch since a truly non-political individual became President. But not all political offices are made equal. America has not elected a House Representative to the Presidency since James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1880. Only military officers, Cabinet officials, Governors and Senators have ascended to the nation’s top office since.
It would seem if Americans are so down on Congress and elected officials they would want somebody else to lead the nation. But this argument falls flat when one considers the nature of our elections. America truly only has one federal national election, the Presidency. Thus, unlike for other elected offices, every constituency in the country has a chance to weigh in on who should be President; business interests, national security concerns, ethnic and regional interests, the list goes on. Only those with prior political experience seem able to appeal to so many interests.
It is harder for non-politicians to appeal to all these concerns than sitting officials. For instance, a businessman running for office would be hard pressed to argue he is up to date on national security concerns. A sitting Governor or Senator would be able to make this argument far better seeing as how they could travel to different countries to build up their national security bona fides. Administrative executive experience in government is also crucial. Running a state or working in the Senate builds up this experience in a publicly visible way compared to running a company.
Non-politicians also run smack dab into a wall that separates political machines from the public; the shadow primary. The shadow primary is largely hidden from public view but it involves courting donors, other public officials and endorsements before one even officially declares interest in the Presidency. Political officials have a much easier time soliciting donations, courting endorsements and currying favor than non-politicians. Consider the case of Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2009 and 2010 Mitt Romney courted future endorsements by endorsing in primaries and general elections. In 2011 and 2012 when he needed the favors returned he received them.
The next reason is situational but for the most part true; public officials are battle tested in the political arena compared to their counterparts. Certainly, many public officials make gaffes (47% anybody) but their campaign teams are usually developed enough to minimize the damage. Not so much for non-politicians. Not to borrow too much from the 2012 GOP field but when businessman Herman Cain stormed ahead of the pack with his 9-9-9 plan it was assumed he could break non-politicians losing streak. But when Cain was asked during a debate whether his plan would raise enough revenue for the government to operate or spur economic development his answer was vague and nonsensical. Follow-up interviews showed the same. Cain’s team did little to mitigate the damage and he soon fell permanently behind the pack in polls and donations.
The 2016 Presidential field is shaping up to not even feature a non-political candidate. Prospective GOP candidates include Louisiana Governors Bobby Jindal (LA), John Kasich (OH), Susanna Martinez (NM) and Scott Walker (WI); all are expected to win their reelection races in November. Senators Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY) and Marco Rubio (FL) all appear likely to take the plunge. The only non-political candidate considered to be in the running is Doctor Ben Carson and this is likely due to the fact he stood up to Obama during a dinner. Personal observation; Carson is far to soft-spoken to survive the rough and tumble of politics.
On the Democratic side all eyes remain on Hilary Clinton, a decidedly political (and dangerous) women. If she does not run, or even if she does, others may run including Governors Mario Cuomo (NY), Martin O’Malley (MD) and Vice President Joe Biden. Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), a darling of the grassroots, may even run. There is no viable non-political candidate who can compete in the Democratic primary.
Despite America’s open distaste for politicians we certainly do not mind elevating them to the highest office in the land. Expect election 2016 to yield the same as every election since 1948 sadly.