The Challenge of the Challenger

by Russ Roberts on July 23, 2004

in Politics

Watching Sandy Berger twist in the wind this week reminds me of how difficult it is to challenge a non-incumbent. Berger was Kerry’s national security advisor for the same reason Bush has Cheney and Rumsfield on his team. You trot out what is the lowest risk people, the people who have been there already, the people with a track record, the people who remind the voters of other more reconizable names. In this case, it has backfired because Berger has to quit. But the impulse to go with the old team, be it Clinton’s or Bush’s (or Reagan or Nixon’s) is understandable. You have enough handicaps as the challenger already—you don’t want to try and convince voters that you’re new, untested foreign policy team will be just fine. Kerry will simply replace Berger with another old war horse.

The challenge of the challenger is an enormous problem for Kerry. Who is he? Political mavens know him well. Most people know he’s from Massachusetts. How many have any idea what he’s really about? A lot of that defining will come from a relentless ad campaign from Bush. Bush’s goal as the incumbent is to set people’s expectations about Kerry rather than letting Kerry do the defining. To make matters worse, Kerry is a former Senator. There is a reason that Senators have been abysmal at becoming President. They take lots of different positions on lots of different legislation. So even if they are principled, it is easy for an opponent to make a Senator look otherwise.

The essential advantage of the incumbent is name recognition. Contrary to popular belief, the importance and edge from name recognition is nothing new in politics. Look at the first ten Presidents of the United States. (Here‘s a nice list from Wikipedia.). Other than Van Buren, each was either a Founder, a war hero or a son of a President. All were famous men. All were well known. Van Buren was merely a former Senator.

The last former Senator to win the Presidency was Nixon (who was a Senator for only two years before becoming VP at the age of 39) who defeated another former Senator, Humphrey. Before that it was JFK who won in a squeaker over Nixon in 1960. Before that, I think you have to go back to Harding in 1920. Recent losers include McGovern, Mondale and Dole. Many many more former Senators have failed in their quest to get the nomination.

The power of the incumbent and the challenge of the challenger to establish name recognition and identity is one of the reasons to be skeptical of campaign finance laws. They make it much harder for talented, non-famous people to enter Presidential politics.

(This post is corrected from an earlier version where I mistakenly claimed that JFK was the last former Senator to win the Presidency.)

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