The FINANCIAL — Almost three in four U.S. adults — 72% — say that governing a state provides excellent or good preparation for someone to be an effective president. This number is slightly higher than the percentages who say the same about being in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives (65%) or serving as secretary of state (63%). Smaller majorities believe that serving as a member of the president’s Cabinet (56%) or being a business executive (51%) provides this level of preparation.
Similar percentages of Republicans (76%) and Democrats (74%) say that being a governor helps prepare someone for the presidency, but there is a major split between the parties on the perceived effectiveness of serving in Congress. About the same percentage in each party thinks serving in Congress is good preparation (43% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans), but only 16% of Republicans believe it is excellent preparation, compared with 30% of Democrats.
Despite the public’s belief that experience as a governor is a positive attribute in presidential candidates, being a governor has not paid off in the early stages of both parties’ 2016 presidential nomination contests. Six of the nine Republican candidates who have been governor — Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Jim Gilmore — have already dropped out of the race. None of the other three — John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie — finished among the top five vote-getters in last week’s Iowa caucus. The only Democratic candidate with gubernatorial experience, Martin O’Malley, dropped out after finishing third in Iowa.
Both of the major candidates left in the Democratic contest — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — have been senators. On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz won in Iowa, and Sen. Marco Rubio finished third.
Public Values Experience More Now Than in 2003
Though approval ratings for Congress have dropped from 41% in 2003 to 16% now, the percentage of U.S. adults who think being in Congress is excellent or good preparation for someone to be an effective president has held steady — 64% then vs. 65% now. Further, the percentage who say it is excellent preparation has grown from 14% in 2003 to 25% now.
The percentages who think being governors or business executives is excellent preparation for being president have also grown since 2003:
17% of U.S. adults in 2003 said being governor of a state was excellent for preparing to be an effective president. That number has grown to 27% now.
Nine percent said in 2003 that being a business executive was excellent preparation; now 17% say it is.
A strong majority of Americans say that experience in major governmental offices — whether as a senator, governor or Cabinet member — is an asset for anyone seeking the presidency.
Every president since 1961 has come to office having served as either a governor, a U.S. senator or a member of the U.S. House. Over the past 40 years, voters have tended to favor candidates with gubernatorial experience over those who served in Congress. In the eight campaigns in which a candidate with gubernatorial experience ran against a candidate with congressional experience, governors and ex-governors won six times (1976, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004), compared with two wins for candidates with experience in Congress (1988 and 2012).
With President Barack Obama’s success in the last two presidential elections, including his victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, candidates with experience in Congress seemed to have gained the upper hand.
However, the 2016 presidential campaign has put candidates with either kind of experience — whether as governor or in Congress — on the defense against attacks that they are too tied to their party’s establishment. Most successful in launching such attacks has been billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who has done well in early polling for the Republican nomination selling his qualifications as a nonpolitician. On the Democratic side, a sitting senator, Sanders, has shown strength running as an outsider whom Americans elected as an independent.
With majorities still saying they think experience as a governor or a member of Congress is an asset, one of the keys to this year’s election will be how much value voters attach to such experience. If Trump can overcome those views and succeed in winning the election, he will be the first president who has been neither a governor nor a member of Congress since Dwight Eisenhower left office in January 1961.