When it comes to political experience and running for president, increasingly, less is more.
President Obama was in the U.S. Senate a hair more than two years before he announced his White House bid in 2007, and this year, the first three candidates to announce their campaigns were all first-term senators elected in 2010 or later: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
It'd be easy to attribute the rise of the first-term-senator-turned-presidential-candidate to Obama's success, but it's actually part of a larger pattern. In three of the past four presidential elections, the candidate with less time in major public office won. You can spot those three losers pretty easily when you chart out the days between candidates first taking office in Congress or a governor's mansion and making a presidential campaign announcement:
Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain, each with more than two decades of experience in major public office, were beaten twice by George W. Bush, who served one full term as Texas governor, and once by Obama, who didn't even serve a full term in the Senate and was an Illinois state senator previously.
Mitt Romney ended the trend in 2012, but he didn't have all that much time in elected office himself, having served as Massachusetts governor for one term -- less time than Bush served as Texas governor.
And longtime politicians haven't fared well in the primaries either. It wasn't just Obama sprinting past Hillary Rodham Clinton. The 2008 Democratic field included longtime senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, who couldn't gather any momentum, while one-term senator John Edwards finished third. Similarly, in the 2012 GOP contest, Romney lapped longtime Gov. Rick Perry, former two-term senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. And Perry and Gingrich surely wish they could have run without parts of their lengthy public records.
Similarly, this year the longest-serving politicos are the longest of long shots. Basically nobody thinks Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) or three-term former New York governor George Pataki have a chance, despite their superior experience. And the front-runners apart from Jeb Bush are all first-term senators (Cruz, Paul and Rubio) and a four-year governor (Scott Walker).
Armando Ianucci, the creator of "Veep," offered an explanation last week for why least experienced politicians do better.
"When you've not got much to show for yourself other than your face, you enter the presidential race without baggage and with the opportunity to attack all those who have," he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter. "You enter not as someone with a legacy but someone who is a brand."
It's such a modern, Instagram-age explanation, but it makes sense. We increasingly elect our presidents based on their #brand, not so much their record. Brands are better at expressing what want out of our elections -- feelings such as hope and change -- than the messy realities of voting records that don't always age well. Clinton's vote for the war in Iraq was popular in 2003, but public opinion changed in a few years, and her vote became the impetus for Obama's campaign.
Obama smartly talked early and often about his skepticism of the case for going to war in Iraq. But given his foreign-policy evolution as president, it's not out of the question that his verdict on Iraq could have been different had he been in the Senate in 2003. Obama is far less dovish a commander in chief than he was a candidate -- which isn't surprising but does prove that less experience can be more helpful.
If elections are about the future, it's easier to project what we want that future to be on the blank slate of a newbie presidential candidate than on a candidate with battle wounds of decades of political fights and controversial votes. But it doesn't even take decades anymore. With the ease of recording everything a candidate does or says and being able to share it online, even a few years in Congress could be enough to derail a presidential hopeful. Every comment made at what a candidate thinks is a private fundraiser, every gaffe, can be uploaded to YouTube or tweeted.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Christian Science Monitor recently that we "may be in the early stages of a perverse system, where the less you have done, the better off you can do in presidential politics." The 2016 field seems to bear that out.
And yet Clinton still towers over Republicans, even without her time as first lady. She comes to the race with more electoral experience than many of her opponents (which, considering some of our past candidates, still isn't much).
Accordingly, she's positioning herself as what Ianucci described as "Dark Matter" -- an empty space in the political universe who is vast but unknowable, a friend to the rich and poor, a "testosterone-field superhawk" and "grandmatronly van-driver popping into Chipotle for a chat with the staff." In other words: a mix of contradictions.
But she does it because that's what she has to do. She was unable to win the nomination after a term in the Senate and two as first lady, and she has decades' worth of a public record now. She's not reinventing herself as much as being cautious about defining herself any further than she already has.
There are certainly benefits to serving for a long time in public office -- mostly, practice at having to do the things that are required to run and win office.
But increasingly, politicians with natural ability are surging ahead without such vast experience, in large part because our system is catering to them. We shouldn't forget that as we approach an election in which the well-traveled Clinton could very well face a relatively fresh GOP face.