The Magazine

The Elder Stateswoman

Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be a fresh face in the White House.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JAY COST
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Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president—just as she was eight years ago today. If she were to succeed this time around, what would her chances be for a general election victory? Obviously, it is far too early to reach anything approaching a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless, we can draw some basic inferences based on the career and age profiles of previous nominees for the presidency to see how Clinton stacks up.

The Elder Stateswoman

gary locke

In his groundbreaking 1966 study Ambition and Politics, Joseph A. Schlesinger observed that there was a fairly rigorous hierarchy to political careers in the United States. In particular, he found that certain positions offered avenues to promotion to higher positions, while others did not. For instance, one does not go from being a state legislator to president in a single shot. Rather, the pathway to the executive mansion usually comes via having been a governor, senator, vice president, or high-ranking military commander during a war. Thus, the two major-party nominees almost always have similar backgrounds. Clearly, politicos and voters tightly regulate who is, and who is not, considered a candidate for the top job.

It is not just a candidate’s professional background that matters. Age is undeniably a factor as well. The average president is between the ages of 54 and 55 when he first assumes the office, while the average loser is roughly the same age. There has been, moreover, very little deviation around these averages since 1828. All but five presidents have been between the ages of 45 and 65 at the time of their elevation. Unsuccessful candidates for the presidency are a bit more likely to be older, but not by much.

If Hillary Clinton were to win the presidency in 2016, she would prove an exception to these rules. Her eight years in the Senate aside, her political career does not fit the normal pathways of previous presidents. Evidently, no president made a debut on the national stage as first lady. And the State Department is hardly a path to the White House anymore. During the Jeffersonian era, serving as secretary of state was the best way to become president; but since the presidency became a popularly elected position, the department’s nonpolitical nature has been a burden for candidates looking to build electoral coalitions. The last president to have served previously as secretary of state was James Buchanan. Insofar as the office has held an occupant with political ambitions of late, it has been a “consolation prize” for failed presidential nominees. In the last 100 years, John Kerry, Edmund Muskie, Charles Evans Hughes, and William Jennings Bryan all became secretary of state after losing bids for the presidency.

Whether the State position will ultimately be a feather in Clinton’s cap remains to be seen. On the one hand, the apolitical nature of the job has certainly enhanced her standing with the public. She has, over the years, gotten reams of positive press for her world travels, which has boosted her favorable numbers with Republicans and the all-important bloc of independent voters. Moreover, she already had a top-flight political organization in place before she entered the job, and it can easily be rebuilt by the time of the Iowa caucus. So the nonpolitical nature of State has not been a drag on her political prospects. On the other hand, the position ties her inextricably to the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general and the Benghazi fiasco in particular.

Clinton will be 69 at the 2017 inauguration, which would make her older than every previous president upon elevation except Ronald Reagan (who was about two weeks away from his 70th birthday when he was first sworn in). Will this affect her odds?

Since the country began the practice of mass-based presidential elections in approximately 1828, there have been 46 elections that featured two major-party candidates. Most of the time, their age differences have been negligible, for the reasons Schlesinger hypothesized. The pathway to the presidential nomination takes skilled (and lucky) pols roughly the same amount of time. The exceptions are usually military leaders and prior aspirants, both of whom tend to be older. Military leaders (like William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Dwight Eisenhower) tend to be victorious, while prior aspirants (like Henry Clay, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney) tend to be unsuccessful. Clinton falls into the latter category, having tried and failed to reach the White House in 2008. Of course, Ronald Reagan is an exception to this rule, winning the presidency on his third attempt, in 1980. So is Richard Nixon.

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