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Does Political Experience Lead to Presidential Effectiveness?

02/18/2015 12:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

During the 2008 election, a cartoon emerged with an older voter talking about how little political experience Illinois candidate Barack Obama had. A younger voter pointed to the Lincoln Memorial and said "Oh, it worked out pretty well last time."

Later in the election, when Arizona Senator John McCain put Sarah Palin on the ticket, those questions about political experience resurfaced. They continued through the 2012 election, as Mitt Romney harped on Obama's experience, while critics pointed out that Romney had spent as many years campaigning for an office (1994, 2002, 2008, 2012) as he did serving in one (a single term as Massachusetts Governor).

Those questions are likely to hound some potential 2016 election candidates for president, like Marco Rubio, Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz, and Dr. Ben Carson. As Rome's Cicero noted: "If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state." Ronald Reagan used a similar line to deflect from his age, by pointing at his opponent's "youth and inexperience" for laughs in the second presidential debate of 1984.

We've always assumed that experience leads to effectiveness. But does it?

To answer this question, I look at the political experience of a president prior to assuming office, the years serving as a member of Congress (in the House and/or Senate), governor, and vice-president. For presidential effectiveness, I look at Arthur Schlesinger's 1997 ranking of the presidents in Political Science Quarterly. For obvious reasons, I look at all presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton, as George W. Bush and Barack Obama weren't in the 1997 rankings.

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The most experienced presidents by years of political service were (in order) Gerald Ford, Lyndon B. Johnson, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, James Garfield, James K. Polk, James Madison, Richard Nixon, John Tyler, John F. Kennedy, George Herbert Walker Bush, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Bill Clinton, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Harry Truman.

Of these, only Polk, Jefferson and Truman made the top ten list for Schlesinger, while Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and John Tyler made the list of Schlesinger's least effective presidents.

Among the least political experienced presidents, there were Ulysses S. Grant, William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Zachary Taylor, William H. Harrison, Chester Arthur, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.

Both Roosevelts (FDR and Teddy Roosevelt), Washington, Wilson, Lincoln and Eisenhower made Schlesinger's list of the top 10 effective presidents, while only Grant and Hoover were among the least effective presidents.

What it goes to show is that political experience might not be as important before assuming the presidency. Other experience, military, business, community, might also be helpful. Whether your candidate is a fresh face or has only served four years or less in office, as the second list has done, it's okay to chance on that presidential prospect.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.