What does it take to win the White House? Books like The Keys to the White House have tried to answer this question since time immemorial, this one spelling out thirteen (count 'em, thirteen) keys to winning the Oval Office. Those of us who aren't academia nuts speculate on more pedestrian measures, like, "Who's taller?" Or the outcome of the last Redskins game before the election.
Most of these formulas try to predict the winning party, but Presidential elections are tests of will defined by individual leaders. What qualities do the winners of the last few elections share that the losers didn't? I think you can boil it down to five: executive experience, warmth, authenticity, electability, "the 14 year test," plus bonus points for incumbency or past national leadership. Get the most points and you have the most appealing general election candidate.
Here's a spoiler that doubles as full disclosure: I consult for a candidate, Rudy Giuliani, who comes out strong on these measures. But I'm utterly shocked by who else is near the top. Overall, the index does a decent job of explaining the appeal of the current field on both the Republican and Democrat sides. And the last three two-term Presidents -- Bush, Clinton, and Reagan -- scored 4 or more on this scale before being elected.
Executive experience. There's no disputing that the record of sitting U.S. Senators or Congressmen in seeking the White House is none too stellar. The last three two-term Presidents all hailed from executive offices. A direct promotion to the opposite side of Pennsylvania Avenue happened just twice in the 20th Century -- 1960 and 1920.
Score one for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney; they've managed complex bureaucracies bigger than a Congressional office. A successful tenure at the head of a large organization is the job experience most directly applicable to the Presidency. Rudy Giuliani was a mayor, but for eight years was the leading political figure in a place larger than 39 states. Governor's mansions aren't the sole province of successful executives; Dwight D. Eisenhower managed a little thing called D-Day.
Warmth. This one is as close to an Iron Law of Presidential Politics as you can get: Warm beats cold. Bush beats Kerry and Gore, Clinton beats Dole and Bush, Bush beats Dukakis, Reagan beats Mondale and Carter -- they all fit the pattern. Since the advent of television, the candidate perceived as warmer and more approachable has never lost a general election. (The elections in the '60s and '70s that departed from this pattern were Cold vs. Cold elections.)
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