This popped up in my Twitter feed today, and it’s a really good question right now.
Yesterday, Bobby Jindal joined Scott Walker and Rick Perry as multiple-term governors who bowed out of the Presidential race. Polls (albeit with questionable methodology) show neophytes Donald Trump and Ben Carson at the top of the Republican primary heap for now.
To interlope into this Twitter conversation, does an effective candidate for President have to be a career politician?*
The answer is: Almost definitely.
Sure, there are plenty of citizen-activists who have held very prominent offices without prior political experience. Jesse Ventura was actually governor of Minnesota once. Current Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson went from being a businessman speaking at a tea party rally to the Upper House on Capitol Hill within a few months. Arnold Schwarzenegger (and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan) held the California Governor’s mansion with little political experience.
But as with many walks of life, the need for tested expertise expands with the prominence of the stage. The amount of effort and money expended on Presidential races mean candidates have to be on their game.
Put another way: If some Jonny Yutz off the street grabs steps into the batter’s box against a junior college pitcher, they might make contact and get a base hit. Send them up against even a mediocre long reliever from the bigs, and it’s probably a strikeout.
On television, baseball looks easy, doesn’t it? When a batter strokes a single to center field, the swing can look so fluid and easy that it makes you think, “Yeah, I could do that.” We don’t see the hours in batting cages spent working just on the position of the batter’s feet, or the way his hips turn, or where he holds his hands in his batting stance. We don’t see the hitting coach who told him that this pitcher likes to throw get-me-over changeups on 2-1 counts to lefties.
With Presidential candidates, we see debate performances. We see stump speeches. We see polls and talking heads acting as campaign surrogates. We get mail and robocalls, and we see TV ads – boy, do we ever see TV ads! But we don’t see the phone calls to donors asking for money. We don’t see the person organizing volunteers to walk door-to-door speaking with voters. We don’t see the guy with three computer monitors telling the digital department that if turnout changes by 1.3% in Macomb County, the campaign will likely win Michigan.
We sure don’t see people being dragged to the polls, which is how contested campaigns are really won.
Could Jonny Yutz step off the street and, with some natural talent, intelligence, and practice, get a hit off a major league pitcher? Sure. But Jonny might not even know how to get himself into hitting shape.
Often, “outsider” Presidential candidates talk a big game about changing politics as usual, but fail to recognize that politics as usual is usual because it works. President Obama’s 2008 outsider bid offers a great example; for all the platitudes about change, they followed a very basic strategy of identifying supporters and turning them out. They simply out-organized Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election.
Trump might be an exception.
As a businessperson, one would hope Trump understands the peculiarities of different markets. He likely wouldn’t launch a fast food company without learning what has made companies like McDonald’s successful. If Trump has brought that mentality to his presidential campaign, he might actually have a shot.
But that will only be if he recognizes that, as with any other business, there is an expertise to winning campaigns. Those who ignore that fact are doomed to lose.
*(To be a little clearer, let’s call a career politician someone who would have an elected office as their current title on their debate chyron. Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina would be noted for their accomplishments outside of elected office. Someone like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, though they have not held office in a while, would be more recognized as “professional politicians.”)