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Ready to Lead on Day One: Predicting Presidential Greatness from Political Experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2010

John Balz
University of Chicago


Presidential candidates frequently tout their political experience on the campaign trail, telling voters that it has prepared them to deal with complex problems, make weighty decisions, and show leadership. The value of that argument was put to the test in the 2008 presidential campaign by Hillary Clinton against her opponent, Barack Obama. This paper uses a multilevel model to analyze the value of national and state political experience on overall presidential greatness, as judged by seven surveys of academic experts. Overall, there is no evidence that political experience improves the likelihood of strong presidential performance, and even some weak evidence that political experience in certain political positions, most notably mayor and member of Congress, leads to poorer performance. In the end, great presidents are not great simply because they have spent their lives in politics and learned important lessons. Other personal and historical factors are likely to be more important.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2010

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