Elected Officials & Pedigree: Do Voters Prefer the Average Joe or Someone Smarter Running the government?
In September 2009, Scripps News reported that 5 percent of the members Congress were serving without having a college degree, which is not required by the Constitution, but is often assumed. “According to the Congressional Research Service,” the outlet reported. “Twenty-seven House members and one senator currently serve without a college degree.”
“College degree credentials are becoming so much more relevant by the second, ” Steven Taylor, a university professor at American University told Scripps. “I would think generally you’re not going to find a lot of young people who made it into one of the houses of U.S. Congress without a degree.”
That is not necessarily true any longer in these days of anti-Beltway insiders.
During the 2010 mid terms, having a degree or too many Ivy League credentials were used against candidates for office, particularly incumbents. Their opponents accused them of being too aligned with Washington and coming from “Inside the Beltway.”
Those without the pedigree and Beltway background counted on their status as a “regular” person to get them elected into office. The tactic appealed to Americans who were frustrated with many in Congress who have been deemed elitists and disconnected from the concerns of average Americans.
Several candidates capitalized on the frustration against well-moneyed incumbents. In their campaigns, they frequently mentioned their own working class backgrounds and less than stellar pedigrees. For example,
- When then Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, was up for reelection a few years ago,he frequently talked about his blue-collar upbringing in South St. Paul and about how he was the first member of his family to graduate from college.
- While Republican George Hutchins was running for Congress in the 4th congressional district of North Carolina, he boasted on his website that he was the only candidate from the working class.
- Milwaukee County Executive, 64-year old Scott Walker, (now Governor of Wisconsin ) won without having a college degree.
- In one campaign ad, then Delaware Republican Senatorial nominee Christine O’Donnell announced, that unlike her opponent, she did not attend Yale.
Also, back then, any elected officials that criticized the makeup of the Tea Party movement membership or its policies, were called out as being arrogant snobs and accused of looking down on average working Americans.
For example, during the 2010 primary races, Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle went on record calling Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) an “out of touch” elitist, after he characterized the tea parties as having no identifiable strategy.
Through this tactic, they were hoping to signal to the working and middle class electorate that they understood their struggles and would be better suited to hold office on behalf of the average American.
In 2010, an Associated Press-GfK poll said working class Whites were more likely be voting for Republicans proving that the maneuver worked, for Republicans anyway.
However, in some instances, the tactic backfired, when candidates for office in 2010 were busted trying to elevate or boast about their credentials and pedigree.
- Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell, herself who completed her bachelor’s from Fairleigh Dickinson University a year before running for office, was found to have claimed to have taken courses at Princeton and saying she attended the Oxford University on her LinkedIN and MySpace pages, when she in fact did not. If she was so proud of her simple non-pretentious background, would she have even bothered to embellish her background, some asked.
- Similarly, while blasting her opponent, Harry Reid, on the campaign trail by calling him an elitist and connected Washington insider, Republican nominee candidate Sharon Angle was forced to reply to an audio recording released of her boasting about her connections and clout on Capitol Hill.
It appeared they wanted to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.
However, not everyone is buying the idea that the person representing them in Congress should be an “average Joe” or “ordinary American.”
In the 2010, Georgia primary, for example, not having a college degree may have been the demise of Republican nominee candidate Karen Handel. The Congressional hopeful lost to former Congressman Nathan Neal when Neal kept hammering on Handel’s lack of pedigree.
Though it is little known fact, had Handle won the nomination and eventually the seat in office, she would have joined then three active sitting governors that also do not hold college degrees: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (no longer in office) and Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert. Now that Scott Walker is the Wisconsin governor, he replaced Rell as the third.
Having a college degree and one from one of the country’s premiere institutions doesn’t necessarily make a candidate the best for the job of holding office.
Certainly, there are plenty of examples in history of inventors, scientists and business owners who have excelled in their respective industries without holding a degree.
In fact, currently less than 30% of Americans have college degrees, though more are getting them. From 1940 to 2007, the percentage of people age 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees has increased from 4.6 percent to 28.7 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Notwithstanding, there is a presumption that the skills, intellectual capability, and discipline it takes to excel in a college setting can be translated into an effective law maker or political leader.
Indeed, many satirists, bloggers and commentators have pushed back declaring that people expect those holding higher office to be the smartest people around and the best suited and most capable for the job, and that they want someone more intelligent and well-studied than themselves holding high seats in office.