Voters who look at the growing field of Democratic presidential candidates and realize they couldn’t pick most of the contenders out of a lineup need to thank Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is the legacy of the last two presidents that, perhaps for the first time, any politician with ambition genuinely believes he or she has a legitimate shot at winning the White House.
All the “experts” told Obama, who had been a little-known state legislator only 25 months before announcing his presidential candidacy, that he didn’t have the experience needed to win. The same experts told Donald Trump that a reality-TV star did not have the experience needed to win. Yet both won, leaving far more experienced candidates in their dust.
It is a lesson taken to heart by 2020 Democratic candidates, who make up the largest such group, and perhaps the least experienced, in modern presidential campaign history. The group includes two first-term senators and one just starting her second term; two former short-termers in the House, the 37-year-old mayor of the 301st-largest city in the nation, and a former mid-level Cabinet officer. The most experienced declared candidate is Bernie Sanders, in his third term in the Senate after nine terms in the House. Still in the wings are Joe Biden—with 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president—and Stacey Abrams, whose only experience is 10 years in the Georgia House and a failed run for governor.
That either Abrams or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg or former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney could run is something that would have been unthinkable until recent years. Veteran Republican pollster Bill McInturff admits to being “sort of grumbly” on the topic, since he started warning about it when Obama mounted his campaign in 2008. He argued then “that Obama’s résumé was very thin and it would be a ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ going forward.” McInturff had learned from legendary Republican pollster Robert Teeter, who often talked about “the circle,” a “mythical, very limited place you had to be in Americans’ minds to be considered to be president.” After Obama and Trump, and after looking at this year’s candidates, McInturff admitted, “that seems very out of date in today’s world.”
In part, that is because the traditional “gatekeepers”—the political parties and the news media— have much less say in who should be taken seriously as a candidate.
“Voter distrust of ‘politics as usual’ has significantly eroded the influence and impact of political gatekeepers, making their impact on the nomination process minimal,” said Neil Newhouse, who cofounded Public Opinion Strategies along with McInturff and was Mitt Romney’s lead pollster in 2012. Just as important is the rising role of social media, which, he said, “allows candidates to circumvent the traditional political power centers and take their message directly to voters.” He called that “the accelerator in political campaigns” because it enables “little-known candidates to appeal to narrow niches of the electorate.”
Looking at the current crop of candidates, he said, “Experience is simply not as major a factor in voters’ calculations, since they believe the current crop of politicians have gotten them into this mess.”
Polling offers little clarity. In a late 2018 USA Today/Suffolk University Poll, 59 percent of Democrats and independents said they wanted “someone entirely new” as the Democratic nominee. But their top choice as nominee, at 53 percent, was the most experienced—Biden. In 2015, Republicans started the year, according to the Pew Research Center, preferring “experience and a proven record” over “new ideas and a different approach” by 57 percent to 36 percent. But as Trump surged and consolidated his grip on the party in the six months between March and September, Republicans flipped, with 65 percent now wanting new ideas and only 29 percent wanting experience. By November 2016, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of voters preferred “someone who will bring major changes” to government.
“The presidency is the only job in which experience can be a negative,” said Bill Schneider, a professor at George Mason University and longtime political analyst. But, he noted, voters often look for what they are not getting from the incumbent—youth and vigor after Dwight Eisenhower, honesty after Richard Nixon, leadership after Jimmy Carter, a domestic focus after George H.W. Bush, personal rectitude after Bill Clinton, tough talk after Obama. After Trump, Schneider thinks voters will want someone who knows how to run a government and who has “a sense of normalcy and civility.” Trump, he said, “has no civility. He is vulgar, he is angry.” He said, “Experience next year may mean something, just as a contrast to Trump.”
If it does, it will be a rarity since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear war, put more of a premium on candidates with military experience and knowledge of foreign policy. When that fear dissipated in 1989, voters put less value on experience. In the seven presidential elections from 1992 to 2016, the less experienced candidate (measured by years in high-level government service) won six times. Only in 2012 did the more experienced candidate win.
Obama and Trump won as champions of change. In 2008, Obama got the nomination over a field that included 97 years of Senate experience and 21 years of gubernatorial seasoning. In 2016, Trump brushed aside GOP rivals with 74 years of gubernatorial experience and 44 years in the Senate. It is a history that today propels Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, John Hickenlooper, and all the other little-knowns hoping to follow Obama and Trump into the Oval Office.