Writing at CNN, Ronald Brownstein made an interesting observation. Over the course of American history, no presidential nominee has had as lengthy a career in elected office as former vice president Joe Biden does going into the 2020 Democratic nominating contest. In other words, if Biden wins the nomination, he will be the most experienced presidential candidate in history.
That’s true because Biden first assumed elected office in 1970, sitting on the New Castle County Council in his home state of Delaware. Two years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he held until he became Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009.
Out of curiosity, we went back and looked at the political careers of every major candidate who has run for the White House since 2000. For our purposes, we marked the start of a political career as the assumption of any elected office at or above the city level. We didn’t count time spent serving in a presidential administration unless elected, and we didn’t subtract out time not spent in elected office — like Biden’s last two years.
Most of the actual nominees, you’ll notice, have come in recent years from the less-experienced end of the pool. We’ll come back to that.
In 2000, the candidates from both parties had an average of about 4,300 days of experience in elected office. In 2004, the average was about 6,400. In 2008, it jumped to 7,200, thanks in part to Biden’s candidacy and his even-then-long track record. In the crowded fields of 2012 and 2016, the average was about 5,900.
This year, on the Democratic side, the average is back down to 5,300. That’s the lowest in two decades, and that’s despite Biden’s entry in the race. Without Biden, the average is 4,700.
But there’s a pattern in recent elections that suggests Biden’s experience isn’t necessarily a good thing. Below we have presented each candidate listed above, in order of the experience each had before declaring his or her candidacy.
At the far left is Biden’s 2020 bid. Also at the far left, coming in fifth, is Biden’s 2008 bid. (You’ll notice that the second lengthiest track record belongs to former senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) in 2008. Gravel is sort-of running in 2020, too, but not to the point that we count his 2020 bid as serious.)
You will notice, too, that the 2020 Democrats (the blue-green column) are heavily stacked in the middle and toward the right end of the graph. Again, you can see that the actual nominees (indicated in black) tend to be somewhat less experienced. And the actual winners — Obama, President Trump and George W. Bush — are among the least experienced candidates of them all. When they won the presidency, they had a combined 5,300 days of experience, less than a third of what Biden has.
There’s a benefit to not having a long paper trail in politics, as Brownstein notes. Biden has already hit some turbulence thanks to positions he advocated decades ago. His handling of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court has been a focal point of questions about his candidacy. Obama, Bush and Trump were, at the time each won election, not similarly burdened. What’s more, the lack of a robust paper trail allows voters to project onto the candidates their own views and priorities.
Brownstein points out that the only other candidate with a record anywhere close in length to Biden’s — and who actually won — was James Buchanan. Buchanan’s 1856 victory is probably not one that will offer Biden much guidance in how to run his campaign.
If the winner of the 2020 election is going to be the candidate with the least experience in elected office, that’s bad news for Trump, who is now officially a politician. There are two candidates on the Democratic side with less experience in elected office than him: businessman Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson.
Neither seems likely to win the nomination, mind you, but, then, neither did Trump four years ago today.
correction: The data for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was incomplete and has been updated.