As reported previously, there are many paths to becoming President. Most typically, as with any other endeavor, candidates start at or near the bottom and work their way up. A Governorship or Senate seat are the most common, but there are many other routes available. However, most candidates have, quite predictably, held some type of elected office before becoming President. It only makes sense that someone who is holding the highest office in the land would have at least had some practice at getting elected. A few presidents, however, have jumped directly into the top job. In reverse chronological order, this is them:

  • Dwight Eisenhower, the president from 1953 to 1961, was a Five Star General and supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. As will be seen, military leadership is a frequent course of winning the presidency without prior electoral experience. Despite the fact that he was a military commander, Eisenhower was not, by most standards, a bellicose or martial figure, with his job during World War II involving much administration and diplomacy, and very little combat leadership. He was a very affable figure, and had the personal loyalty of the millions of soldiers who fought under him.
  • Herbert Hoover, President from 1929 to 1933, served as the Commerce Secretary under Calvin Coolidge. Commerce Secretary is not usually a high profile position, and even people who follow politics closely would be hard pressed to name more than one or two people who have held this position. Hoover's fame was more due to his efforts in World War I, when he helped coordinate logistical aspects of the war effort, as well as humanitarian relief during and after the war. Hoover also was running for the Republican Party, which in the 1920s, had a great lock on American politics. Once Hoover had convinced his party to nominate him, he was almost assured of victory.
  • William Howard Taft, President from 1909 to 1913, was Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt, was a career administrator who had worked his way up through a series of unglamorous positions to a point where he had a high cabinet post. When Theodore Roosevelt chose not to run, Taft became his natural successor. Taft's position before becoming President had included Solicitor General, Judge, and Governor of the Phillipines. Quite an interesting resume.
  • Ulysses S Grant, General of the Union Armies, was a war hero who easily won two elections for President, serving from 1869 to 1877. Unlike Eisenhower, Grant was a much more direct and forceful military commander, and in large part won the war by sacrificing troops without hesitation. There was probably a strong tide of patriotism and uncertainty after the Civil War, and Grant was an attractive candidate for both reasons.
  • Zachary Taylor, President from 1849 to 1850 (when he died of illness), like Grant, was military hero. He was the chief general during the Mexican-American War, and was quickly drafted into political office, despite lack of much political background.
  • George Washington is a possible mention. He was another war hero General who had not previously held elected office in the United States of America, mostly because there had not been a United States of America. However, Washington had served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, so whether he was truly without electoral experience is a matter of debate.

So the totals for ascension to the Presidency without prior electoral victories are five people, three of whom were famous generals, and two of whom were career bureaucrats. On the whole, such a thing is very rare in our political system. Which is not to say it will not happen again, but most mentions of Dark Horse candidates without an electoral resume should be treated with skepticism. Also, something that should be considered, but that I chose not to go into detail about here, is the success of the presidents mentioned. Since this is an involved and subjective affair, I didn't go into it, but most of these presidents would not be considered to be successful or notable in the presidency as they were in their prior positions. It seems that the skills needed for the presidency have to be cultivated over prior elected executive or legislative experience.

March 2021 Update:

There is another name to add to this list, Donald Trump, a reality television star from New York City. Unlike the other people on this list, Donald Trump never held any type of governmental office or military experience before becoming President. He won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. His single term in office was marked by abuses of power, failures in several fields, and general chaos. In conclusion,

It seems that the skills needed for the presidency have to be cultivated over prior elected executive or legislative experience.

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