Executive Experience

Posted: August 16, 2011 in analysis

On the front page of redstate.com, contributor Melissa Clouthier writes, when considering who to support for the Republican Presidential nomination:

2. Executive Experience.
The “executive experience” requirement eliminates some folks, but oh well. I want our next President to know his or her way around the bottom line. He or she should be ok making decisions. A Governor has to be elected by a broad base of folks. A Governor has to stay true to principles but be more pragmatic. A good Governor leads.

Now, Ms. Clouthier isn’t making an objective claim here; she’s just expressing a preference.  But it’s a preference that implies a claim; that executive experience makes a better President.  But does it?

In order to answer this question, we need to figure out two things.  First, how much executive experience did each President have, and how do we measure it?  Second, how do we determine whether a President was good or poor?

Executive experience is measured in many ways.  Ms. Clouthier uses the term to seemingly refer to governors only.  Other Presidents have claimed executive experience from serving in previous Cabinets, in the military, as Vice President, in other government positions, or in private business.  Rather than attempting to rate these elements against each other, I will simply note which of these roles a President could claim to as a measure of their executive experience.

Presidential greatness, on the other hand, is more difficult to measure.  What I have chosen to do is to take a normalized average of the rankings of each President in every survey recorded on this Wikipedia page, with rankings for terms in progress removed.  This process is slightly different than the aggregate rating system on that page, but produces similar results.

By my account, with a score of 1.72, Abraham Lincoln is our best President (with no previous executive experience).  Second is Franklin Roosevelt (previous Governorship) and third is George Washington (military general).  This is the same as the aggregate ranking, and the trend continues until the mid teens, and shows few deviations thereafter.  The advantage to my scoring system is that it keeps how close together/far apart the averages are, as opposed to a strict ranking that spaces each President exactly 1 apart.

Then I can build a model, attempting to explain a President’s average normalized rank by what experience they have.   This is a simple linear model with factor explanatory variables.  The results differ slightly depending on which categories of experience one includes, but the results are very similar across the board; there is no measurable effect of previous executive experience that is not likely due to chance.  The only value worth reporting at all is that previous Vice Presidential experience seems to have a negative effect on overall Presidential quality, but this result is marginally valid.

But in this case, a null result is a strong result.  I can confidently say that neither previous governorship nor executive experience in general has historically resulted in better President’s than their lack.  So, while people may use the executive experience yardstick to measure Presidential candidates, they should know that history does not support a benefit (by the measure of overall Presidential quality) in doing so.


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