Why you should care
Because college majors are a snapshot into candidates’ younger selves.
Study the campaign habits of certain politicians and you would think that they were born shaking hands, patting backs and kissing the heads of babies. Ideally, that lifelong journey wraps up nicely with the presidency, a process that began way back in college. Not surprisingly, 11 of our 23 declared presidential candidates this year graduated with a degree in public policy, political science or law. The other 12 are another, far more intriguing story.
Take Republican Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO. Her degree is not in poli-sci but in medieval history and philosophy. Back in October, Fiorina quipped that it would come in handy when she was president, “because what ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.” And it’s possibly more than just a joke. “[Her major] supports Fiorina’s argument that she’s an outsider,” says Boise State’s Justin Vaughn, a political scientist. Another oddity: Try picturing Mike Huckabee in preacher’s garb. The former Arkansas governor studied religion at Ouachita Baptist University before spending a year as a seminarian.
11 of our 23 declared presidential candidates this year graduated with a degree in public policy, political science or law. The other 12 are another, far more intriguing story.
Past presidents have shown that a degree attained decades ago doesn’t guarantee prowess in that area, says Vaughn. George W. Bush, with a master’s in business, presided over the Great Recession; Bill Clinton, a lawyer, committed perjury while in office; and Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor, has greatly stretched (some would say snapped) the limits of the executive branch’s power under the Constitution. “Just because somebody studied something,” Vaughn says, “doesn’t mean they’ll be good at it.” And the major-driven concept of college is “a late-19th-century construction” anyway, adds Joseph Ellis, a presidential historian. The important thing? Finishing college in the first place (our only college dropout this year, Scott Walker, has also, well, dropped out).
Degrees do give us a snapshot into candidates’ more youthful ambitions. Progressive icon Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat perennially posited as a presidential candidate, studied speech pathology and audiology, which might prove useful since most pleas to Congress in recent years have fallen on deaf ears. Republican Jeb Bush’s love for Latino culture is well-documented, considering not only his wife, Columba, but also his majoring in Latin American studies, a possibly head-scratching decision for someone who wants to run the U.S.
Nobody holds a candle, though, to Democrat Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor who dropped out of the race in October. He must have imagined a far different life for himself when he attended Montana State University, where he mastered the art of horseshoeing. His exploits in the field even earned him a shoutout in the equine magazine Hoofcare & Lameness.