More on Experience and Presidential Performance

Like David Frum, I’ve gotten almost a hundred emails on my prior post on Sarah Palin’s experience and its relevance for predicting her potential future performance as president. To reiterate, I addressed only this question, not the broader questions of whether she helps or hurts McCain politically, how she would do as vice president and so on. I made the not-so-crazy-seeming-to-me observation that the experiences that tend to be associated empirically with strong presidential performance are either serving as governor of the largest state or serving as supreme military commander in war.

I’ve made hiring and/or firing decisions for thousands of people for complex, demanding jobs (though none, to put it mildly, as complex or demanding as POTUS). As regular readers of my posts will probably not be surprised to learn, I’ve always put in place detailed systems to track predictions for future employee performance made at the time of hiring vs. actual subsequent performance over a period of years. I have developed the very unromantic view that prior relevant performance is the best single predictor of future performance. Of course, when hiring someone into a new job, the trick is defining “relevant”. It seems to me that running the largest state or the armed forces in war are the closest available analogies to being president. This is why my empirical result didn’t surprise me a whole lot.

Consider the list of 20th century presidents with one of these two qualifications (WSJ 2005 rank in parentheses): Theodore Roosevelt (5), Franklin Roosevelt (3), Eisenhower (8), Reagan (6).

Now consider the list of those without either qualification: Taft (20), Wilson (11), Harding (39), Coolidge (23), Hoover (31), Truman (7), Kennedy (15), Lyndon Johnson (18), Nixon (32), Ford (28), Carter (34), George H.W. Bush (21), Clinton (22).

Which deck would you rather draw from?

Lots and lots of things matter beyond objectively-measurable experience, and there are many circumstances in which people with such qualifications are not available (e.g., the Governor of California is not eligible, and there have been no recent major wars), but for conservatives to argue that Sarah Palin has the experience that indicates she is likely to be successful as the President of the United States is a suspension of critical faculties.

Further, while personal judgments about candidates are also useful in predicting performance, any empirical analysis of hiring practices that I have ever done indicates that there are some important caveats to using judgment in this way: (1) it should be exercised in the context of intensive interactions of varied types that are validated as predicting performance, (2) these interactions should be well-structured to maximize comparability across candidates, and (3) while some people can be shown empirically to be better at making such judgments than others, the idea of “a nose for talent” that trumps all other predictors is always a self-serving delusion. I have seen no good evidence that the McCain campaign has pursued such a process, and I refuse to believe that I can read some press reports about her, see her give a good press conference, and have some mystical ability to have anything other than a wild guess about Sarah Palin would perform as president.

Of course, just as I ended my prior post, I’ll note that none of McCain, Obama and Biden have these specific executive qualifications either, and in fact have exactly the kind of legislative-dominated experiences that have tended to be associated with our worst-performing presidents.