Introduction

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This campaign button depicts General Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor, who gained fame during the Mexican-American War. In 1848, the Whig party took a gamble on Taylor as a heroic but politically inexperienced candidate. Courtesy of National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, via Smithsonian Institution.

No political experience? No problem!

Thirty-nine of forty-three US presidents served in elected office in roles such as state governor, Congressional representative, or vice president prior to becoming president. The number of years of service varies widely—Woodrow Wilson was governor of New Jersey for only a year before running for the presidency, while Lyndon Johnson brought twenty-four years of congressional experience to the White House. The most common profession for presidents is lawyer, but there are outliers here too: Ronald Reagan was an actor and Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer.

In 2016, Americans heard a lot about the appeal of the outsider candidate, the person who approaches the presidency from beyond the insider field of Washington politics—and not for the first time.  A common profile of the successful non-politician outsider in presidential elections has been the military hero, called to lead the American people after victory on the battlefield.  In the nineteenth century, Presidents Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor each sought an electoral victory on the basis, in whole or in part, of their military leadership. In the twentieth century, President Dwight Eisenhower followed a similar formula to win the presidency following World War II.

The circumstances surrounding each election vary, but this section will examine how each candidate turned their lack of governing experience into a political asset and why major parties—perhaps the ultimate insider institutions—embraced these outsider candidates.