When do the Candidates Come From? Part 1: A Conventional yet Unprecedented Field

For several months now, the Republican Presidential race has been dominated by four people. Two are first-term Senators; the other two have never held public office. Is this unprecedented?

And that’s not the only strange thing about this election. Jeb Bush has led both the money race and the endorsement race since he began his campaign, so if there is an “establishment” favorite, it’s him. But Jeb’s been out of office for nine years! Is this also unprecedented?

The short answer to both questions is yes. But first, I have to define exactly what I’m looking for.

The question I want answered is: “How long has the typical Presidential candidate been in high office? Or, for those no longer in office, how long have they been out?” I’ve decided to define “high office” by the following positions: Congressman, Senator, Governor, a Cabinet or Cabinet-level position, or the mayor of a top-100 city. These positions are the most typical stepping-stones to the Presidency. They allow for political connections and media attention far exceeding lower positions, like Lieutenant Governor. True, they are not all the same – the Governor of New York will have far more connections and media attention than, say, a Congressman from Nebraska. However, I’m looking mostly at when politicians are in office, rather than which office they’re in. This will roughly tell me “when” each candidate comes from, politically. I’m also ignoring time spent in-between offices, such as John Kasich’s long retirement from Congress before his comeback gubernatorial campaign in 2010. It’s one thing to have made a comeback; it’s another to expect that your Presidential campaign is your comeback.

It’s not the most rigorous system, but I’ve learned a lot from it. First, a look at the GOP candidates. (I’m measuring time only up to the beginning of election year – in this case, 2016.)


From this chart, we can see a few different types of candidates:

Pure outsiders: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina have never held public office.

  • Eisenhower (1952) was the last pure outsider elected President. The last non-military outsider to be nominated was Wendell Willkie (1940).

Newcomers: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker have all spent 6 or fewer years in the spotlight. Cruz is a pure newcomer; like Obama (2008) he’s only been Senator for 3 years as of election year. The rest are Rising Newcomers, like George W. Bush (2000); 5 or 6 years is plenty of time to make your name, though you’re still relatively new to the political class.

Careerists: John Kasich, Lindsay Graham, and Bobby Jindal have been around for a while. (Jindal stepped down in January 2016.)

  • Bill Clinton (1992) and Bush Sr. (1988) were careerists.

Retired Careerist: Rick Perry’s fourth and final term as Governor ended last year.

  • Ronald Reagan (1980) was this, and was the last non-office-holder of any kind elected President.

Has-Beens: Amazingly, there are four candidates – Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki – who haven’t actually held office for a whole 9 years.

  • Has-beens are almost never elected President, but Richard Nixon (1968) pulled it off, having stepped down as Vice President 7 years earlier.

Never-Was: You can see why Jim Gilmore is treated as a joke.

  • Nobody like Jim Gilmore has ever been elected President. Under my system, John Davis (1920) was the last Never-Was nominee, although he was at least Ambassador to the U.K. You’d have to go back to William J. Bryan’s final campaign (1908) for a more clear-cut case.

This is one of the most varied fields in history, in terms of when each candidate comes from. Several different eras of the Republican Party are fighting for dominance, along with some theoretical eras (the Trump era?) that haven’t arrived yet.

What about the Democrats? Well…


Bernie Sanders – the factional, fringe candidate – is the only one who’s currently in office. All of the others are retired, even the also-rans who quickly dropped out. (Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee are all retired careerists; Jim Webb is a Retired Newcomer.) I’ve looked back at previous elections, and yes, this is unprecedented. There’s always someone in office who wants to grab some attention with a quixotic campaign.

However, some fields do come close. You’d expect the Republicans to have the same problem in 2012, after their party was demolished in 2006 and 2008. And you’d be right:


Ron Paul was in the same place Bernie Sanders is in now: a fringe candidate, but the only one of the top four to still be in office. It makes some sense that, if you want to run as a fringe candidate, it’ll take much longer to accumulate the resources and name-recognition you need for a Presidential campaign than a more mainstream candidate. Anyway, if it weren’t for Rick Perry (careerist) or Michelle Bachmann (rising newcomer), all of Ron Paul’s opponents would have been retired. The Tea Party wave of 2010 was too recent to produce a contender, and everyone else had been wiped out in 2008 or 2006. Mitt Romney was the first retired newcomer to be nominated since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

What about the Republicans in 2008? Like today’s Democrats, they had to deal with a horrible midterm two years prior. And yes, as it turns out, there are some similarities:


Although McCain himself was still in office, his most serious opponents were not. I find Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson’s similarity on this chart interesting; they were both much-hyped before they ran, yet neither won any state or even got 2nd place. Perhaps they were too out of touch with the 2008 electorate to live up to the hype.

When the incumbent party is tired and beaten, its only options are the old-timers or the already-gones. That’s my interpretation of the chart above. For the Democrats that year, things were different:


Several candidates had more than 10 years of experience; two had more than 30 years. But none of them gained traction, and all of the top 3 candidates had spent less than 8 years in office. True, Hillary was well-known for her First Lady days, and had Bill’s connections to fall back on. But the First Lady isn’t accountable to anyone; the Senate was Hillary’s real introduction to politics. In any case, she wasn’t new enough for a Democratic Party that wanted to change more than just the party in power.

But back to this year’s Democrats. The Republicans in 1980 also had a similar situation:


Reagan and Bush Sr., the only candidates who won any states, had both been out of office for several years. (Even if you count Bush’s stint as C.I.A. director, he’d still been out of office for 3 years.) The third-place finisher was John Anderson, the factional moderate who’d been in Congress for almost 20 years (and went on to run as a 3rd party candidate.) So in that way, this election was like 2016 for the Democrats and 2012 for the Republicans. Still, unlike the 2016 Democratic field, there were at least some also-rans who currently held office.

So this year’s Democratic candidates have the least variety in recent history. The Republicans, by contrast, have possibly the most variety. The 2008 Democratic field (above) was pretty varied, too; do parties always have this variety after a two-term absence from the White House? No, not always:


You’d think 1988 Democrats would be pushing “hope and change”, like 2008; instead, only careerists even made it to the primaries (and Jesse Jackson, the factional candidate). Of course, Reagan was much more popular than George W. Bush. More importantly, Democrats were never unpopular in the 1980s; they held the House of Representatives all eight years of Reagan’s Presidency. In fact, they’d held it continuously since the early 1950s. The Democratic old guard still won elections.

Notice the second-place winner: Jesse Jackson, a pure outsider. He won about 30% of the vote. Pure outsiders sometimes run, but rarely do as well as Jackson. The last time outsiders got more than 30% of the vote was 1996:


Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes won a combined 35% of the vote – which is just about where Donald Trump now is in the polls. Think about it: Buchanan was a populist rabble-rouser; Forbes was an extremely wealthy businessman. Trump is a populist, rabble-rousing, extremely wealthy businessman.

Do 1988 Democrats, 1996 Republicans, and 2016 Republicans have anything in common? Actually, yes. Those are all exactly two years after the party won full control of Congress (and more specifically, the Senate). Granted, so was 2008 for Democrats, and no pure outsiders ran that year. Instead, Obama filled that niche. Parties will look for someone new when they have momentum. Or maybe the old guard just doesn’t fit in so well with the new party, which hasn’t festered long enough yet to produce an incumbent candidate. (Obama, elected to the Senate in 2004, was the lucky exception.)


You can tell a lot about a party by “when” they choose their candidates from. In addition to the above charts, I looked at all candidates who won at least 1 state in primaries and caucuses going back to 1980. What I found basically lines up with intuition:

  • If a party’s suffered major losses within the last 6 years, incumbents will stay on the sidelines. Instead, the party looks for some non-incumbent hero-in-waiting, like Reagan, Romney, or Hillary Clinton.
  • A party that just gained control of Congress will look for someone new to maintain that momentum. Maybe even someone completely new to politics. If Donald Trump got 30% of the national primary vote, he wouldn’t be the first pure outsider to do so.
  • Additionally, the aforementioned momentum will attract has-beens who see a chance to revitalize their forgotten careers. However, this has never worked; not for Gingrich 2012, and probably not for Bush 2016.
  • In general, the incumbent President’s party won’t look for someone new, while the non-incumbent party is more likely to do so.
  • A party with long-term control of Congress is more welcoming to long-time incumbents. That is not true of either party this year, though.

In these ways, 2016 is a totally conventional year. The incumbent President’s party, after major defeats in 2010 and 2014, is running old non-incumbents. The more excited Republican Party, after 2 terms in the opposition and brand-new majorities across the country, would prefer a fresher face.

What’s unprecedented is how extreme both parties are in following these patterns. For Democrats, not a single current officeholder showed up – except Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even technically a Democrat until 2015. And Donald Trump’s main opponents aren’t old establishmentarians – they’re Rubio and Cruz, two first-term Senators. The field is so new that much of the establishment was forced to back a has-been, Jeb Bush, over any incumbent. Of the current Republican candidates, only Kasich has a continuing career that goes back for some time.

When its candidates come from says a lot about a party. But does it say anything about the candidates themselves? In Part 2, I’ll post some evidence that it does.


One thought on “When do the Candidates Come From? Part 1: A Conventional yet Unprecedented Field

  1. Pingback: When do the Candidates Come From? Part 2: When the Supporters Come From | Trivial Analysis

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