Do Americans really want outsider politicians?

Posted at 2:44 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 17:17:05-05

More than half of Americans said that all things being equal, they would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who is seen as a political outsider over a political insider, according to a Monmouth University poll from August 2018.

In that poll, 52% of respondents said they preferred an outsider candidate while 25% said they preferred an insider candidate.

It’s a result that Democrats appear to be taking to heart. The party seems to be seeking outsiders for top tier Senate races in 2020, such as astronaut Mark Kelley, husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has announced he’s running for Senate in Arizona. Kelley’s main political experience comes as a gun control activist, not as a politician.

In Kentucky, Democrats are reportedly trying to recruit former fighter pilot Amy McGrath to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McGrath lost a campaign for Congress in 2018, but could still be considered an outsider.

It’s still very hard to break into the top levels of US government without political experience. A review by FiveThiryEight finds most presidents have a background involving stints as a governor, a US senator, a Cabinet-level appointee, vice president or as a US representative. Five presidents have been something else entirely, with no political experience, but that doesn’t mean they had no government experience at all.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich, nine people have been nominated for president without prior political experience. Five of them won the presidency and four were generals.

“They include towering figures like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower,” writes Rakich. “The one commander-in-chief who was elected without any political or military experience? That would be the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.”

Rakich did not include third-party or independent candidates, such as Ross Perot, with no political experience. And there are rarely outsider options for voters. Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz might run in the same way Perot did in 1992.

In the Democratic presidential primary, there are two people who could be considered outsiders who have officially declared in the Democratic primary: Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang. Williamson is a best-selling author and Yang is a businessman.

Schultz said at a recent CNN town hall that he is still mulling a presidential bid in 2020, considering a run as a “centrist independent.” This idea has sparked outrage from Democrats, who worry an independent candidacy could split the anti-Trump vote and pave the way for his re-election.

While respondents to the Monmouth poll said they want someone who isn’t a political insider, the same poll showed political experience is also viewed as a positive for a candidate for congressional candidate. The same poll showed 61% of Americans said it’s a very or somewhat positive quality.

So while Americans seem to like the phrase “political outsider” (or dislike “political insider”), they still want their candidates to have some experience in the political arena.

In general, more Democrats valued political experience (75% very or somewhat positive quality) than Republicans (58%) or independents (53%).

A CNN poll last week found Democrats didn’t prioritize bringing an outsiders perspective to Washington as strongly as some may have thought. About one-in-five (19%) said the ability to bring an outsider’s perspective to Washington was extremely important to their choice on who to support for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

While that may seem high, it’s the lowest rated quality on the provided list of qualities for candidates, following things like “has a good chance of beating Donald Trump” (49% extremely important) and “has the right experience to be president” (39%).

Democrats’ opinions on being an insider haven’t changed much since 2015, when Trump was just entering politics. According to a Quinnipiac poll in September, 2015, 81% of Democrats would prefer a candidate to serve in Washington who had experience versus someone who was an outsider (15%). Republicans felt differently; 23% wanted someone with Washington experience and 72% wanted an outsider, somewhat predictive of their future embrace of Trump.