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The Elder Stateswoman


Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be a fresh face in the White House.

Jay Cost

Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president—just as she was eight years ago today. If she were to succeed this time around, what would her chances be for a general election victory? Obviously, it is far too early to reach anything approaching a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless, we can draw some basic inferences based on the career and age profiles of previous nominees for the presidency to see how Clinton stacks up.

The Elder Stateswoman

In his groundbreaking 1966 study Ambition and Politics, Joseph A. Schlesinger observed that there was a fairly rigorous hierarchy to political careers in the United States. In particular, he found that certain positions offered avenues to promotion to higher positions, while others did not. For instance, one does not go from being a state legislator to president in a single shot. Rather, the pathway to the executive mansion usually comes via having been a governor, senator, vice president, or high-ranking military commander during a war. Thus, the two major-party nominees almost always have similar backgrounds. Clearly, politicos and voters tightly regulate who is, and who is not, considered a candidate for the top job.

It is not just a candidate’s professional background that matters. Age is undeniably a factor as well. The average president is between the ages of 54 and 55 when he first assumes the office, while the average loser is roughly the same age. There has been, moreover, very little deviation around these averages since 1828. All but five presidents have been between the ages of 45 and 65 at the time of their elevation. Unsuccessful candidates for the presidency are a bit more likely to be older, but not by much.

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