The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

48° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Experience an overrated quality

    Opponents of Sen. Barack Obama have mercilessly attacked him for not having enough experience – as recently as Wednesday, Sen. John McCain echoed Sen. Hillary Clinton’s claim that the presidency does not lend itself to “”on-the-job training.”” Detractors claim that McCain’s military service and 21 years as a senator, as well as Gov. Sarah Palin’s executive experience, make them more likely to be a good executive team.

    I have proven, using math, that there is no reason to think this is true.

    I’m a science and math geek, not a history or political science nerd. In what I believe is a first for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, I used statistics and let them speak for me. For each president of the United States, I gathered parameters pertaining to their life experience, political and executive experience and military service.

    I checked these against how “”good”” a president was. To quantify this, I averaged the rankings of each president in five recent polls of historians: a 1999 C-SPAN poll, a 1996 Ridings-McIver poll, two Wall Street Journal polls from 2000 and 2005, and a 2000 Siena poll. I omitted Bush Jr., as well as James Garfield and William Henry Harrison, because neither of them spent very long in office.

    If you’re not interested in statistical details, skip the next three paragraphs.

    I looked for correlations between each president’s average ranking and his military rank, age upon becoming president, years as governor of a state or territory, and years of “”federal experience”” (defined as the sum of years as governor, years in the Congress or Continental Congress and years as an ambassador or at a Cabinet or vice presidential position). I calculated Kendall’s, which is superior to a standard correlation coefficient for nonparametric data, as an indicator of the correlation, then converted the result to a pð value to check for significance. The test was one-tailed for greater sensitivity because the prediction is not just that experience matters, but that it makes a president better.

    I also compared the distributions of presidential rankings between those with and without prior executive experience, those who did and did not serve in the military and those who were and were not governors before being elected. I used one-tailed Mann-Whitney U tests for these comparisons to obtain p values. I also compared their means with one-tailed t-tests, which are more sensitive but which rely on assumptions the data do not meet.

    I regarded any test as significant if it yielded a p value of 0.10 or less, meaning that the results were 90 percent likely not to be a result of random chance. Ask any science student and he’ll tell you that this is a generous cutoff, so I can’t be accused of trying to make the results seem insignificant.

    Not a single test yielded significant results, meaning that I couldn’t reject the null hypothesis (no correlation or difference) for any of them. Military, executive, political and “”life”” experience are not good predictors of presidential success. This is not surprising; before being elected, some of our best presidents (Lincoln, Kennedy and Wilson) have been frighteningly inexperienced, and some of our worst (Buchanan, Grant and Andrew Johnson) have had plenty of experience.

    The simplest explanation is that there is no form of experience that prepares a person to be president. No matter who is elected on Nov. 4, they will need on-the-job training, because there is no other form of presidential training. This doesn’t mean that we should randomly pick people to govern our country; it’s a suggestion that other aspects of a candidate should be more important in our decision-making.

    A good scientist should always admit the shortcomings of his work.

    This result is not perfect. Historical rankings are as close to an objective measure of presidential “”goodness”” as anyone will get, but they are not ideal. Additionally, I did not consider other forms of experience which might be relevant, such as business experience or Teddy Roosevelt’s smorgasbord of odd jobs he held before his election. But by eyeball, these don’t seem to hurt the results too much.

    Even if this analysis turns out to be invalid for some reason, it should be noted that both Obama and McCain have been executives of large organizations since 2007 – they’ve been running the unprecedentedly large national campaigns which modern politics demands.

    The best predictors of presidential success are probably the obvious ones: good judgment, devotion to American principles, solid ideas and strong advisers – all of which are, regrettably, difficult to quantify. If you’ve read my other columns, you know which candidate I think wins in these respects, but living in a democracy means that you should make the call for yourself, too. Just don’t be suckered into thinking that experience is a good determinant of presidential success. The numbers say “”No!””

    – Taylor Kessinger is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, math, and physics. He can be reached at

    More to Discover
    Activate Search