18 year old Saira Blair was elected to West Virginia's House of Delegates (state government) today, becoming the youngest American lawmaker.

How was she able to get elected, when an 18 year old presumably has no political experience?

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    She won the election by getting more votes than the other person.
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:12
  • Well, duh, but how did she manage that?
    – Scimonster
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:12
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    I don't think that's a question we can answer with any certainty. It'll likely be something the pundits and analysts pontificate on for some time. I can only throw out theories: She appealed to the voters; she had name recognition (her father is in politics); she's the unique outsider/underdog being so young (we have a history of electing the 'novel' candidate in this country: Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jessie Ventura, etc.); her opponent was unlikable; etc. (those are all just wild theories)
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:16
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    Democracy (insofar as we have one) is not automatically a meritocracy (due to competing priorities, vested interests, etc); so it would be stranger at current if politicians were elected on the basis of experience instead of ideology. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 22:51
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    @Scimonster - first, age is NOT necessarily correllated with political experience. People often participate in student government (or high school cliques which is even worse) well before 18. (2) you're making an assumption here that having political experience is either a good thing (debatable - George Washington would disagree) - or at least, necessary to win a small scale election. It's not usually about the political experience of the candidate, but that of their campaign staff.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 2:30

2 Answers 2

  1. "How was she able to get elected" is answered easily: she convinced more people than her opponents (first, in Republican primary, then in general election) to vote for her.

  2. How did she manage to win if she had no political experience?

    • First, it is often more the experience of your campaign staff and not your own.

      Her campaign manager is her father, who is a State Senator. Clearly, no dearth of experience there.

    • Second, age 18 is no guarantee of lacking political experience. While she clearly was a subpar campaigner (by her own admission, scared of public speaking), she obviously observed how things are done via her father's campaigns.

      Craig Blair is father and campaign manager both. Oh, and he’s also the area’s state senator. So, Saira grew up in his campaigns, watching him win. Then, this spring, he watched her (src)

    • As @DA noted, USA has a history of voting in people with little political experience. The fact that a person NOT being of a permanent ruling class is a positive isn't exactly new - among the first to champion it was none other than George Washington.

      More recently, we had elected offices occupied by: non-political spouses of deceased polititians (Bono); actors (The Governator); wrestlers (Ace Jesse Ventura). Tinkers, tailors, sailors and spies, too, I suspect, if one digs deep into state legislatures. We definitely had doctors (Howard Dean and both Pauls, to pick 2 opposites politically).

    • There were factors OTHER than experience that helped her win:

  3. What factors helped her win?

    General factors:

    • Nepotism (to an extent). As noted, her father is a State Senator. That clearly helps with name recognition, finding volunteers, and networking with local/state party functionaries.

    • Her father was clearly a competent campaign manager. He did manage to win his own elections before, and obviously knows how to put together a good campaign staff having done it for himself.

    Factors helping to win the Republican Primary:

    • USA in general is on a rising wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Incumbent advantage is ebbing (FiveThirtyEight covered it recently, and it halved since 1980s); populist politics is on a sharp rise in BOTH political wings (Tea Party and OWS being the manifestations).

      Her R opponent in a primary was a former lobbyist. Not the most liked animal these days, especially among Republicans. Notably, he ran unopposed in all of his prior primaries.

    • She outspent her opponent in the R primary:

      She spent about $4,800 on her campaign, state finance records show (Kump, a former lobbyist, only spent $1,800 on his reelection bid).

    Factors helping to win the general election:

    • In a general election, she ran in a district with heavy pro-R fundamentals, to borrow a phrase from Nate Silver. Specifically:

      Mitt Romney took nearly two-thirds of the vote in her district, according to a breakdown by the liberal DailyKos blog (src)

    • She ran in 2014 - a year of heavy Republican advantage on fundamentals (again, 538)

    • To top it off, D candidate was a lawyer. Another animal not greatly liked by the average voter.

    • It was a minor election, not attracting the attention of national parties. So there was little media scrutiny, opportunities for gaffes, the need for expensive media ad buys. She campaigned via hand-written letters, for deity's sake!

  • Saira Blair is a member of the so-called Millennial generation. This type of generation, like the World War II generation, is likely to inherit the "family business." In this case, politics is what her father does.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 23:26
  • @TomAu - citation?
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 17:33
  • This is the original citation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation. Although I made this point much more emphatically in Chapter 20 of my own book "A Modern Approach to Graham and Dodd Investing."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 17:52
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    @TomAu - I didn't mean citation for the generation label; but for the assertion of likelyhood of inheriting family line of work
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 18:33
  • "Generations" hints at, and my book declares that the Millennials are an "inheritor" generation, with Baby Boomers being a "founder" generation; e.g. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, etc. The World War II Generation "inherited" the GI Bill and a bunch of veterans programs from FDR's "Rendezvous With Destiny" generation.history.stackexchange.com/questions/15374/…
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 18:40

In short, she convinced people that she would represent their interests more than any other candidate, and got them to vote for her.

Teens can and many do gain some political experience through student government, family exposure (esp. in Blair's case; her father's a state senator) and programs like Youth and Government, in which high school students run a simulation state government and get a bit of first-hand knowledge about how those institutions work.

More importantly, voters do not necessarily care if a candidate has political experience if they believe that candidate will do a better job advocating for their interests than the other candidate(s). (Exhibit B: Donald Trump.) Many voters believe it is easier and more likely that the candidate will learn the political & procedural aspects they need, than that a candidate's values, objectives, and guiding principles will change in the voters' favor after an election.

A previously unknown candidate who demonstrates s/he will take the role seriously and work hard in it (e.g. by getting out and knocking on lots of doors) will also tend to fare better than a candidate who takes voters for granted and who voters may see as not being responsive to their needs.

Voters also recognize that every politician starts with some political office, and if "prior experience" were always a strict requirement there would never be any new people entering the set of political offices, leading to an increasingly distinct ruling class. A seat in a state-level house of representatives is not an exceptionally rare first office.

New Hampshire, in particular, has had more 18-year-old state reps than a lot of other places, thanks in part to the huge number of representatives (400, nearly double second-largest PA) for a relatively small state population. With an average of 3300 constituents per representative, a potentially limited pool of volunteer candidates, voter turnout/participation rates in those elections, name-based biases, and other relevant factors, it's not necessarily surprising to see very young (and very old) legislators there. That body was designed intentionally to try to be more representative / similar to a cross-section of the population than different design choices could have made it.

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