A bet that voters prefer the familiar to the new.

Photographer: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

Do Politicians Have a Sell-By Date?

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
Read More.
a | A

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama: We've had three back-to-back, two-term presidencies for the first time since the 1820s. Each of these men took office with his party in control of both chambers of Congress; by their seventh year in office, both chambers belonged to the opposition. They have something else in common, too: Each of them won the presidency on his first try. 

Is that a coincidence, or something more? 

People are always looking for patterns in presidential elections. Governors seeking the White House, for example, do better than senators. Since 1920, senators have been elected president only twice. Governors also win their party's nomination for president more often than senators. That could be a fluke, or it may demonstrate that voters strongly prefer presidents to have executive experience. 

Jonathan Rauch, the political journalist, has identified another pattern, which he calls the Law of 14: Since Teddy Roosevelt's election, all successful candidates for the presidency or vice presidency have won within 14 years of their first election victory. Lyndon Johnson is the exception -- although a Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton race in 2016 could create another one. Rauch has a plausible theory to explain the pattern, which is that "a genuine and perfectly sensible electoral preference underlies it: The public wants seasoned fillies, but not old mares." 

Could the fact that the last three presidents won the White House on their first try be a sign that voters have become more averse to staleness in politicians? Having run for president before still doesn't seem to be an obstacle to winning a party nomination: Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all got their nominations after their first campaigns. But all, of course, went on to lose the general elections. 

This trend -- if trend it is -- doesn't go back as far as Rauch's law does. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had all run and lost before their successful campaigns. But it seems noteworthy that every defeated Republican nominee of the past 20 years had already failed in an earlier bid. 

If we now have an emergent one-and-done rule for presidential bids, the next question is why. Maybe rising dissatisfaction with government and politics has increased the public's demand for political outsiders, and people who have already run for president don't seem sufficiently outsiderish. That would fit with Rauch's explanation for the trend he identified: The preference for freshness in a candidate has just gotten stronger. 

Or perhaps some broader cultural trend has made presidential politics less forgiving of losers. Have Americans become less tolerant of failure? Have saturation news media coverage and declining attention spans made them more inclined to flip the channel on a familiar politician? 

Then again, some apparent political rules are mainly a function of the small number of presidential elections we've had. Republicans haven't won the presidency since 1928 without a Nixon or a Bush on the ticket -- but Republicans could have run different vice-presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, 1980 and 1984 without changing the outcome of any of those elections. 

So our string of three first-time's-the-charm presidents could just be a random streak that's about to be broken. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee should be hoping it is -- and so should Hillary Clinton.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net