Presidential Campaign

How often do Americans elect political outsiders to the presidency?

Republican political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina continue to rise in the polls. They boast a combined 56 percent of the Republican field in an Aug. 27-30 Monmouth University poll of likely Republican Iowa GOP voters.

Historically, most U.S. presidents served as a governor, U.S. senator, congressman or state representative before becoming president. Our nation’s first six presidents were chosen as delegates to the Continental Congress, among other leadership positions.

{mosads}How often have Americans chosen political outsiders without elected experience to the presidency? Rarely: four times directly and once indirectly.

Becoming a national war hero was the primary way three unelected political outsiders vaulted to the presidency.

No matter that he’d never voted in an election before, much less held public office, Gen. Zachary Taylor was the most popular man in America in 1848 because he’d won the Mexican-American War. Political clubs recruited this coy independent and he became the nation’s 12th president.

Likewise, Ulysses Grant emerged as the winning general from the Civil War. Without holding previous public office or directly campaigning, he won the Electoral College three to one in 1868.

Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious general of World War II, built his career in the U.S. Army. After outmaneuvering President Taft’s son, Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), Eisenhower won the Republican nomination and the presidential election in 1952.

Speaking of Taft, some think that President William Howard Taft never held elected office before becoming president — not true. After being appointed to the Superior Court in Ohio, Taft had to run for election to keep his judgeship, the only time he was elected to a position besides the presidency. In between, Taft held a series of appointed government offices, including a Cabinet seat, before becoming president in 1909.

The other unelected outsiders who became president held presidential appointments.

Chester Arthur’s presidential appointment as the head of the New York Port Authority caught the eye of the Republican party machine in 1880 as the vice presidential nominee. When President James Garfield died from an assassin’s bullet, Arthur became president. His one-term presidency was more of a quirk of fate than a call by the electorate for a political outsider. Garfield had been Civil War hero and a leader in Congress.

Herbert Hoover was a self-made millionaire businessman who rose to national and international prominence 10 years before his presidency. He was appointed to distribute food and relief efforts during World War I. His skill as an administrative technocrat and Cabinet secretary during the economic boom of the roaring 1920s caught Americans’ imagination in 1928. They were drawn to his promise of making America great through continued economic strength and a “final triumph over poverty.”

The fall of the stock market just months after Hoover took office and the Great Depression made him a one-term president.

None of today’s political outsiders are war heroes, but all are championing American pride and promise. 

Trump’s and Fiorina’s leadership in the business world and Carson’s leadership in the medical and nonprofit arenas give them distinction from the political class. Fiorina has received appointments to government boards. How far they can ride the outsider wave remains to be seen.

If a political outsider becomes president in 2016, he or she will make presidential history, joining only a handful of leaders with unelected experience. Yet that’s precisely what America is all about, isn’t it? We traded royalty for representation to give anyone a chance to lead our executive branch, whether a female former technology company executive, an African-American neurosurgeon, a third generation Swedish-American real estate mogul, the son and brother of presidents, a second-generation Cuban American and many, many more.

Because of America’s promise — to borrow from some current campaign slogans from both political insiders and outsiders — anyone has the right to rise as a leader of new possibilities, to heal, inspire and revive or make America great, turning it into a place of higher ground in a new American century.

Cook is the author of eight books, mostly on American history topics, including American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile the Saved American Independence. She is also a former White House webmaster and frequent national TV news guest.

Tags 2016 presidential election 2016 Republican primary Ben Carson Carly Fiorina Donald Trump

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