Americans Pick Wrong President–Again

Brad DeLong thinks we need a different system for picking presidents. Analyzing presidential elections since 1972, he finds a disturbing trend:

The pattern is clear: when there isn’t an unknown southern governor running, an incumbent president can win reelection or an incumbent vice president can win election; but the unknown southern governor without a national political record wins the presidency–always.

Why? Because he is a governor, he can raise money. Because he is unknown, he has no enemies in Washington who inform the press corps of weaknesses. Because he has no record, nobody has an incentive to try to block him. Because he is southern, the south tends to vote for him.

The problem is that being an unknown southern governor has next to nothing to do with being an effective president. Of the unknown southern governors who have run since 1972, we’ve been lucky once–Bill Clinton was a good president. We’ve been unlucky three times: Carter, Reagan, and George W. Bush were, none of them, up to the job.

Brad doesn’t suggest an alternative model. There’s no argument for doing away with the Electoral College, switching to a parliamentary system, or any of the usual ideas. Given that two of the three presidents that Brad found not “up to the job” were comfortably re-elected by the American people, though, the new system would apparently need to be one that did not involve the American people choosing their own presidents. Perhaps we could, instead, have tenured faculty at our elite universities do the picking?

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, The Presidency, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    DeLong’s biggest problem of course (And I think I can add a number of other higher ed types under his name in this) is the people we elect. So in hunting around for an excuse as to why his politics don’t win the day, he lands upon the mehtod we use to select such.

    We see this in exatcly half the NFL towns on any given Sunday; Finger pointing and blame unloading… anything but admit the real problem; Their team simply lacks the talent to get the job done. And this is just the leading edge for the Democrats. We’re about to see this escalate into revenge-taking very soon; we’re already seeing Congressional whispering about it…. but that’s another thread.

  2. DeWaun says:

    I would suggest, rather than changing our system of elections in this country…why not just promote better politicians. Good men can go further to make this country better. Good men can change bad laws for the better. On the flip side, bad men, which we have experienced in the past, can change good laws and do bad things.

  3. Teri says:

    Since when was California considered part of the South?

  4. Teri says:

    Never mind. I went to his site. He’s assigning Reagan to Southern California. Technically accurate but misleading.

  5. Rodney Dill says:

    And on top of it he just floats out an absurd claim without challenge.

    We were luck two times, Reagan and Bush,

    and unlucky with, Slick Willie and Mr. Peanut

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Brad doesn’t suggest an alternative model.

    I guessed from reading Brad’s post that he was nominating himself for the job of appointing presidents. Another tragic victim of Bush Derangement Syndrome.

    In the same post he characterizes Richard Nixon as an unknown in 1968. Apparently DeLong has never heard of Alger Hiss, the Checkers speech, Nixon’s serving as Vice President, Eisenhower’s heart attack, Nixon’s first presidential campaign, or his campaign for governor of California. Does BDS cause memory lapse?

  7. McGehee says:

    If Brad wants to run for Appointer of Presidents, I’ll run against him. I’m an unknown from the South, so by his logic I should be heavily favored.

  8. Dave says:

    Governers are executives. Presumably they have some experience making decisions. A senator plays politics. Kerry was labeled a flip-flopper but its possible he was merely indecisive (anti-decisive even). This is a big turn off in a leader.

  9. Bryan says:

    How do people like DeLong get to put out such nonsense without an editor?

    Bush was far from an “unknown” governor from the South.

  10. Ralph says:

    Joyner…really , can´t you see that Brad is merely pointing out the stupidity of the American public and their lack of independent thinking. Truly and unfortunately, America is a country in decadence.

  11. Rodney Dill says:

    cant you see that Brad is merely pointing out the stupidity of the American public and their lack of independent thinking

    I agree as evidenced by the approx 56 Million that voted for Kerry even though the truth about him was public knowledge.

  12. As I commented over at PoliBlog–DeLong should know better than to try and generalize from such a small sample. Further, he never really states what “unknown” means–to whom? to what degree? Of the candidates in question, only Carter strikes me as an “unknown”. Even Clinton was known in the DLC crowd and was featured in a prominent policy book that had some mainstream sales by Osbourne (Laboratories of Demcoracy) in 1988.

    And the Reagan southern thing, SoCal or not, is plain silly, category-wise. Even Bush isn’t as “southern” as Clinton or Carter. There is some West there, too–which is a different kind of conservatism than Deep South conservatism. And Carter and Clinton were Southern moderate-to-liberals.

  13. Ralph says:

    I agree as evidenced by the approx 56 Million that voted for Kerry even though the truth about him was public knowledge.

    …right Rodney…56 million did vote for Kerry…did you look at the map? Most were in cultural centers…i.e. Chicago, NYC, LA, SF…My comment refers to the ass backwards country rednecks

  14. Rodney Dill says:

    Yes I have looked at the map and concluded that people from the supposed cultural centers were stupid enough to vote for Kerry and those from BFE had the common sense to vote for someone with strength of will, values, and courage.

  15. vnjagvet says:

    The self-appointed intellegentsia continue to manifest this type of tut-tutting which has erupted regularly since the republic began. My first personal recollection of the phenomenon was in the 50’s when Eisenhower cleaned the “egghead” Stevenson’s clock twice, to the consternation of university faculty and the elite media commentariat.

    Fortunately, the founding fathers were not so squeemish of the messiness which ensues when the will of the electorate is made clear.

    Fortunately, these snobs almost never are right. Hence, Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, and now GWB.

    Hooray for another “Pauline Kael moment”.

  16. Ralph says:

    The founding fathers were independent thinkers…they created an admirable country. Bush is not. He freeloads on their creation and the public buys it.

  17. Rodney Dill says:

    Obviously much as his detractors.