While the extreme polarization of our political parties has been discussed often, the upcoming Presidential election is perhaps more notable in another way. Given Obama’s experience as a Senator and Romney’s single term as Massachusetts governor, the 2012 election is as light on 'high-level public sector experience' as we have seen in many decades. The implications are subject to debate, but as JPMorgan's Michael Cembalest points out: there’s no question that it’s an anomaly; or at a minimum, a throwback to the elections of the 19th century, when this kind of thing was more common. At a time when confidence in all institutions (non-financial business, banks, Congress, the Fed, etc) are close to multi-decade lows, this is not a surprise. Why should experience count for anything? Throw the bums out and hand the reins over to outsiders! Still, Michael (like us) finds this chart disconcerting, even though it’s hard to explain why. Do politicians who have not wielded substantial power underestimate the consequences of being wrong? It’s easy to be dead sure about something if you haven’t created a public policy train wreck of your own.
The upcoming election offers voters the least amount of prior “high level public service experience” (as defined in the chart above) in many decades. We started our analysis in 1912 (right before the 1913 adoption of the 17th Amendment providing for direct election of Senators), and added the combined prior experience of both candidates. Given Obama’s experience as a Senator and Romney’s single term as Massachusetts governor, the 2012 election is as light on this front as the 1952 election between Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. However, the 1952 candidates had a lot more public sector heft than our chart shows. Our methodology excludes Eisenhower’s military background as a senior staff officer for Generals Fox Connor, Moseley and MacArthur in the 1920s and 1930s, and Stevenson’s experience in the State and Navy departments during WW II, and as a member of the US delegation to the UN during its formative years.
So, to find an election this light on public sector experience, you have to go back to the 1924 election between Coolidge and John W Davis, the latter a compromise candidate who had spent 5 years as US Solicitor General. Both Coolidge and Davis had only spent a couple of years as either Governor or in Congress before running. That’s one strange context of the 2012 election: a couple of “one-termers”, with neither having much prior experience at the highest levels of public service (12 years combined, by our count).
The implications are subject to debate, but there’s no question that it’s an anomaly; or at a minimum, a throwback to the elections of the 19th century, when this kind of thing was more common.