The biggest surprise of the 2016 presidential election cycle so far has not been the rise of Donald Trump specifically, but rather the rise in general of less experienced candidates and the implosion of far more experienced candidates. Already, two well-established governors — Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — have left the race. This is surprising: Although Republicans have long campaigned on reducing the size of government, that traditionally has not led GOP voters to favor complete political neophytes over more experienced politicians.
Indeed, in 2008, the roles were reversed: Republicans nominated one of the most experienced candidates in the field, John McCain, while Democrats chose Barack Obama, who’d only been elected to the U.S. Senate four years before. Obama faced a whole field of more experienced candidates, including eventual Vice President Joe Biden and eventual Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. All attempted to use his inexperience against him in the primaries, but Democratic voters were impressed enough by his charisma and obvious political skills to set that aside.
Republicans have rarely gone that route. Though there have often been presidential candidates with little or no political experience, they have rarely gained anything but momentary momentum at best. Instead, Republicans have tended to nominate either the runner-up from the last round of presidential primaries or one of the more experienced and better-known candidates in the field. Far from being a failure, this approach has brought us successful nominees such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
This year, that belief seems to have gone out the window. The more experienced candidates in the race either have already bowed out or plateaued. Instead, the candidates leading the race are the sort of people who, in a normal year, would be afterthoughts. Given the diverse array of qualified, experienced candidates running for the nomination, it is a shame that they are being shoved aside at this early stage of the race.
The Republican electorate has taken the wrong lesson from 2008. Obama’s victory should serve as a warning. Instead, it may be offering a model that shows they do not need to nominate a qualified candidate for president of the United States, that anyone who checks off certain ideological boxes will suffice.
This is a distorted view of that election. Obama was a fresh face, but he was also extraordinarily politically talented, and he won not because of his lack of experience, but in spite of it. He did so by tying his opponent to the past, by presenting himself as the only option for change. He offered a new direction and new ideas while making it seem like his opponent was part of the status quo.
We can avoid a repeat of 2008, but only if we learn the real lessons of that campaign. We can’t do it simply by finding a nominee with even less political and governmental experience. Voters will not judge whether a candidate is offering a fresh approach based only on his or her resumé, or lack thereof.
Rather, the electorate will consider a candidate’s ideas and whether those ideas tie that person irrevocably to old failed policies or offer the opportunity for a bright, new future. If we nominate someone with a fresh face and little experience who just repeats tired old talking points, that’s not a recipe for success. Experience still matters in 2016, but that means the experience necessary to truly offer voters a new direction, rather than just banking on being a new name. Sorting out who is really offering that experience will be the true challenge for Republican voters as they make up their minds over the coming months.