Looking beyond 2015 to 2016, one presidential trend has dominated for more than 50 years: “Washington outsiders” win. This trend has trumped party, age, region, ideology, experience and ethnicity. Understanding this trend, and its strength, should greatly influence the parties and their supporters as they review their primary fields over the next two years.
For presidential purposes, being a “Washington outsider” does not mean having never set foot in the nation’s capital. For a candidate, it means being accepted by the voters as apart from the Washington culture — particularly in comparison with the opponent.
Stretching back to 1960, Washington outsiders have won 10 presidential elections and lost two when facing Washington insiders.
When non-incumbents face off for the White House, as will happen in 2016, the Washington outsiders have a record of 3-1 when facing Washington insiders. They won in 2008 (Barack Obama over John McCain), 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore), and 1960 (John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon) and lost only in 1988 (Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush).
Washington outsider presidents seeking re-election have won all three times facing Washington insiders — in 2004 (George W. Bush over John F. Kerry), 1996 (Bill Clinton over Bob Dole), and 1984 (Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale). The 1964 Johnson-Goldwater race could join this list, too. Even though Kennedy did not live to run again, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited Kennedy’s mantle, which led him to a landslide win.
When an incumbent president has lost in the past 60 years, he has lost to a Washington outsider each time — in 1992 (George H.W. Bush losing to Mr. Clinton), 1980 (Jimmy Carter losing to Reagan), and 1976 (Gerald Ford losing to Mr. Carter). In contrast, when an incumbent president has been challenged by a Washington insider, he has won all six times — in 2004, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1964 and 1956.
Even the two nonconforming elections, 2012 and 1988, reinforce the outsider trend in their own ways.
In 1988, Mr. Bush won with Reagan’s legacy. As the period’s most successful Washington outsider, Reagan had not simply remained an outsider, but had rehabilitated Washington in America’s eyes. Reagan’s transformation of Washington, without himself being transformed into an insider, insulated Mr. Bush from his insider status and undermined Mr. Dukakis — whose outsider status as a liberal Massachusetts Democrat worked against him in the election.
Similarly, Mr. Obama in 2012 worked assiduously to retain his outsider status of from 2008 with his message of “change.” He also successfully painted Mitt Romney, an actual Washington outsider, as a Wall Street insider. With America still suffering from the financial crisis’ aftermath, Mr. Romney’s inability to claim his rightful outsider status, and shake his Wall Street insider characterization, cost him the election.
Despite the power of the Washington outsider trend, when looking toward a presidential race, all eyes first turn to national figures from the nation’s capital. To a great degree, the media facilitate this approach. Looking first at those we already know is natural for the media, which are comprised of Washington insiders.
Outsiders have to overcome considerable obstacles — less name recognition, money, access to top staff, exposure to big issues and, usually, foreign policy experience. Yet they consistently overcome these disadvantages. The key: being unattached to Washington. That they do so demonstrates these “disadvantages” may be an issue for the Washington mindset, but not for voters.
An underdog status makes a compelling story. Americans also love “new” stuff, including their politicians. The outsider, by definition, is new to most Americans.
Even within this 50-year dominance, it is now especially beneficial to be an outsider. As Washington has accumulated more power, it has inherited more responsibility for current troubles. For many, that things have been bad is an understatement. As a result, public perception of Washington is equally negative.
Quinnipiac’s latest nationwide poll captures America’s broad dissatisfaction with Washington. Both parties in Congress had approval ratings below 25 percent and disapproval ratings of at least 67 percent. When questioned, 84 percent of respondents said “the government in Washington” either “hardly ever” or just “some of the time” did “what is right.”
While deep-rooted today, such skepticism is longstanding. Suspicion of central government power was embodied in the Constitution, which scrupulously intended to limit federal power — both within the federal apparatus, through checks and balances, and via state governments.
Today’s anti-Washington mood fits both the prevailing Washington outsider presidential trend of the past five decades and America’s inherent suspicion of central power. The ultimate check on Washington remains the electorate itself. As voters continue to overwhelmingly choose non-Washington presidents, voters appear to be at least implicitly attempting to exercise their check on Washington. Since 1972, there has not been an election without a Washington outsider on the ballot.
As 2016 approaches, the nation faces an open presidential race for just the sixth time in 56 years. In 1952 and 1956, both parties ran Washington outsiders — Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Both parties would do well to consider doing so again and looking beyond their Washington front-runners. If the past is indicative, that is exactly where voters will be looking — and how they will be voting.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.