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Is This the Twilight of Ivy League Candidates?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Think politics is restricted to a narrow elite now? In some ways, it was even worse in the past.

We have had a streak of Ivy League-educated presidents: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush all have either undergraduate or graduate degrees from Ivys -- indeed, they each have a degree from either Harvard or Yale, or both, in the case of George W. Bush. The current first lady, Michelle Obama (Princeton, Harvard Law) has as many Ivy degrees as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy (Harvard), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford (Yale Law), Jimmy Carter and  Ronald Reagan put together.

And Hillary Clinton (Yale Law) or Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law) could keep the streak going.

Yet that would be more of an anomaly than  you think. If you look at the presidential candidates in six elections -- the three 1960s contests, and the three most recent elections, including 2016 -- the bottom line is that Ivy degrees were far more common five decades ago.

Specifically, I count 17 candidates who contested major-party nominations in 1960, 1964 or 1968. Of these, seven (41 percent) held an undergraduate degree from one of the eight Ivy League universities. If you add in the one Ivy business school graduate and one Ivy law degree, eight of the 17 (47 percent) had an Ivy sheepskin.

I also looked at 30 candidates who ran in 2008, 2012 or 2016.  Only 10 percent (3 of the 30) had Ivy League undergraduate degrees. Four had Ivy graduate diplomas, for a combined total of only five of 30 (17 percent).

Instead, there’s been an explosion of presidential candidates who attended large public universities. There were some in the old days, too: Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota), Barry Goldwater (Arizona State). But there’s a flood now: Marco Rubio (Florida), Jeb Bush (Texas), Rick Perry (Texas A&M), Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota), Chris Christie (Delaware), Joe Biden (Delaware) and more.

Beyond that, both eras have a smattering of graduates of other elite private institutions -- Charles Percy (who took a stab at the Republican nomination in 1968) and Bernie Sanders (who is running as a Democrat in 2016) both went to the University of Chicago. And there are plenty of less-known colleges, too: Richard Nixon attended Whittier College (though he went on to law school at Duke), Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College and Mike Huckabee graduated from Ouachita Baptist University.

By the way, if you think today’s dynastic politics are unusual, that’s wrong, too. Only one nominee during the 1960s was a legacy candidate, but several (two Kennedys, a Stevenson, a Lodge, and more) ran. Again, the evidence appears to show that when it comes to family privilege, our era is more open than 50 years ago (at least as far as presidential politics).

  1. Counting candidates is difficult in the pre-reform era when entering primaries was optional. I did not count politicians who only ran as “favorite sons” in their own state’s primary; those efforts were often a way to tie up the delegation for a state party or a governor, not real campaigns for the presidency. I only count each politician once, even if he or she ran multiple times. Wikipedia is the source for all biographic data.

  2. Counting candidates is difficult now, too. In 2008 and 2012, I limited it to declared candidates who ran full campaigns and drew a fair amount of attention. In 2016 I’ve included the four Democrats (including Clinton) currently actively running; on the Republican side, I included the ten I consider plausible nominees plus Senators Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. I’m confident that neither a tighter or a wider screen would make much of a difference.

  3. I only took a quick glance at elite prep schools, but I’m pretty sure that the 1960s group was more likely to have outdone the recent candidates on that score, too. 

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