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Scott DeRue
  Scott DeRue

Presidential Nominations: Years of Experience Matter Little

5/19/2008 --

New research by Scott DeRue shows that it's the kind of experience, not the amount, that makes a difference in getting nominated.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---John McCain's GOP nomination and the choice of Barack Obama by the Democrats to run in this year's presidential election could have been predicted, says a Ross School researcher.

A new study by D. Scott DeRue of the U-M's Ross School of Business and colleague Jennifer D. Nahrgang of Michigan State University shows that the number of years of political experience doesn't matter much when it comes to getting nominated.

"Given the emphasis being put on 'experience' in the current political campaign season, this bodes well for Obama, whose years of political experience don't quite measure up to those of Hillary Clinton's," said DeRue, U-M assistant professor of management and organizations.

As for McCain, experience does matter---but it's his military experience and not necessarily his political resume, the researchers say.

While there has been a spate of recent debate about how much political experience matters in garnering a presidential nomination, much of it is based on anecdotal evidence or on scientific research conducted in nonpolitical environments or that looks only at the number of years of experience---not the type or quality of that experience.

DeRue and Nahrgang address these limitations by examining different forms and types of experience and the extent to which they predict who gets nominated as the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

Using data from the career resumes of the top four candidates from each political party in every presidential campaign from 1948 to 2004, the researchers examined educational, work, political and military experience.

Education included college and professional degrees, Ivy League affiliations and Rhodes scholarships. Work experience included whether they were lawyers, judges or doctors and the number of years and senior leadership roles in the private/business and public/nonprofit sectors.

Political experience included whether they were members of a "political" family and length of service as a U.S. or state senate or house member, legislative leadership roles and committee memberships, as well as if they served as vice president, governor, lieutenant governor or in the executive branch cabinet. Military experience included number of years served, wartime service, branch of military and military awards won.

DeRue and Nahrgang found that the amount of prior political experience has no impact on the likelihood of nomination. This also holds true for educational and private sector/business experience.

Military experience, however, has a positive impact on the likelihood of nomination, especially if a candidate served in the Navy or during a war---as did McCain.

If one previously served as vice president of the United States, the likelihood of nomination increases and, like McCain, the more times a person runs for the nomination, the more likely he or she will eventually win the nomination.

On the negative side, if a person previously held a senior leadership position in a public sector/nonprofit organization, his or her chances of getting the nomination decreases.

Although their results are preliminary, they speak to the role of experience in predicting who wins the party's nomination, DeRue and Nahrgang say.

In their previous studies conducted in the private sector, they found that high-quality experiences---high levels of responsibility, managing change, working across organizational boundaries and managing highly diverse groups---are better predictors of individual job performance than total number of years of experience.

"The same may very well be true in politics," DeRue said.

But the question remains, he adds, as to why Obama appears to be the inevitable choice for the Democratic nomination.

"It is clearly not experience, so there is something else about Obama," he said. "Prior research suggests that personality and charisma make a significant difference in the performance of U.S. presidents. It seems likely the same is true for securing the nomination---and Obama's personality and charisma have captured the hearts of the American people."

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,