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The Outsiders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laura Caccioppoli
February 2, 2016

With the caucus/primary season entering full swing, candidates on both sides are fighting to show their differences. There is one title candidates are striving to attain: the outsider.

For the Democrats, there is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Despite having served in politics since 1981, both the media and his campaign tout him as the anti-establishment candidate. Republicans, however, are particularly interested in dodging connections to the “Washington elite.”

One need not be “anti-establishment” or an “outsider” in order to claim these credentials. Ted Cruz has been in the Senate since 2012 and Marco Rubio started his political career when he was just 27 years old. Then there are those truly outsider candidates such as Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and, of course, The Donald.


When polled, 58 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats would prefer to have an outsider candidate. The questions remains, why is there such support for these outsider candidates?

Much of the outsider sentiment may have to do with the fact that a majority of Americans believe that government is dysfunctional. In fact, according to Real Clear Politics polling data on Dec. 15, around 76 percent of Americans disapproved of Congress. A majority of Americans, 67.2 percent, feel America is going in the wrong direction. These numbers are not shocking. Americans have disapproved of Congress for many years now and if you check the polls, we have been going in the wrong direction for the past 40 years.

Republicans speak of “challenging the status quo,” of taking power back from Washington and putting it into the hands of the people. These outsider candidates claim they can make the changes needed because they are not “career politicians.” But what could an outsider do differently?

They must still abide by the same rules and regulations—that is, the president has very little power in terms of creating substantial policy change. The president can set agendas and utilize the bully pulpit in order to promote specific policies. However, this does not translate into actual change.

In fact, money bills can only originate in the House of Representatives so there are procedural limitations. Furthermore, outsiders do not seem to have different policy ideas. Aside from Donald’s awesomeness coalescing to create substantial change via willpower, the policies these outsiders toss up are largely the same as those proposed by establishment.

Political outsiders claim that running a successful business somehow translates into skills needed to a country. Here is a short chart that highlights a few ways that is false:

Private Sector Public Sector
Accountable to shareholders Accountable to the public (everyone)
Goal is to maximize profit Goal is to provide services the private sector cannot or will not provide – for example, if the cost of setting up a new infrastructure to deliver a utility is too expensive.
Can exclude users of a service Cannot exclude users of a service (everyone needs water, electricity, roads, public safety, etc.)
CEO has no term limit (possibly limited by corporate boards) Must run for re-election
Hierarchy of power Lateral power structure. Various bureaucracies / House of Rep. / Senate / State governments, etc. needed before decision made
Chain of command allows for quick decisions Designed to act slowly, deliberately and to refine public opinion (see Federalist Papers)

Despite the public saying that they like outsiders, outsiders often do not fare well during the primaries or the general election. In fact, only five presidents did not hold public office: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Eisenhower (Chester Arthur if you count un-elected presidents who assumed power after the assassination of the sitting president, James Garfield in Arthur’s case). These five did serve the public as military generals or political appointees. In our nation’s history, the only candidate to ever win a nomination and never hold public office was
Wendell Willkie, who ran as a Republican against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Perhaps Trump is a present-day Willkie. After all, both were former Democrats, were extremely wealthy and lived in New York. Neither held public office. Willkie did eventually win the Republican nomination and went on to the general election against Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). Despite the Republican’s anti-establishment fervor, Willkie lost by landslide—and FDR went on to win an unprecedented third term by 417 electoral votes to Willkie’s 82. And talk about an establishment candidate: FDR was then sworn in for a third term.

Only time will tell if Donald is the next Wendell Willkie. But if history serves as a guide, not only do these outsiders face an uphill battle during the primaries, they face a mountain when it comes to winning the presidency. Maybe that is OK. After all, being president is not brain surgery. Then again, I would not want an outsider operating on my brain.

Author: Laura Caccioppoli recently graduated from Villanova University with an MA in political science and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management. She currently works at University of the Sciences where she plans to continue her education in health policy. She is also a board member at The Consortium in Philadelphia. Her research interests are in health and food policy, cultural competency and social justice.

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