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The most inexperienced candidate in generations

Speaking at the national NRA convention recently, Mitt Romney made a curious boast. "I am running for president because I have the experience and the vision to lead us in a different direction," he said. Later in the same speech, Romney added, "I am running for president because I have the experience and vision to get us out of this mess."

Of all the qualifications to emphasize, "experience" seems like an odd characteristic for Romney to brag about. Whether or not the presumptive Republican nominee offers a compelling "vision" remains to be seen -- at this point, he tends to stick to vague generalities, as part of a deliberate strategy -- but experience is a quantifiable quality.

And it doesn't appear to be Romney's strong point.

In fact, I counted up the years of experience in public office or active-duty military service for all of the recent major-party nominees, and discovered something interesting: Romney has less experience in public service than any modern presidential candidate. Here's a chart (click for a bigger version) I put together on the subject:

To clarify a few details that may not be obvious in the image, purple reflects active-duty military service; red reflects a role as a state executive (governor, lieutenant governor, or state attorney general); green reflects serving as a mayor; gray reflects serving in a state legislature; light blue reflects serving in the U.S. Congress; orange reflects serving in a presidential Cabinet or in a cabinet-level position (H.W. Bush led the CIA, for example); and dark blue reflects serving as either president or vice president.

Also, for the purpose of this examination, I only counted experience that the candidates had at the time of their election. So with Barry Goldwater, for example, he'd been in the U.S. Senate for 12 years when he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, though after his defeat, he served additional terms in the chamber. Only the service at the time of the presidential race is included in this analysis.

And using this metric, Romney has only four years under his belt. He served one term as the governor of Massachusetts -- and that's it. This makes Romney the least experienced major-party presidential nominee since Republican Wendell Wilkie lost to FDR in 1940. If Romney wins, he'll be the least experienced president since Woodrow Wilson, who won exactly 100 years ago, despite only having been governor of New Jersey for two years before his national campaign.

It's worth pausing to consider whether this matters.

By my count, if elected, Romney would be the third least-experienced president in American history, trailing every chief executive except Wilson and Grover Cleveland, who was mayor of Buffalo for one year and the governor of New York for two years before getting elected president 128 years ago. Every other president had served more than four years in the military and/or public office at the time of their election.

For Romney, this may be considered a selling point. Though he hasn't really been pressed on his lack of experience thus far, it's easy to imagine the former one-term governor arguing that his limited resume, at least in public service, makes him an "outsider." Since voters have been conditioned to look askance at "professional politicians," Romney's limited governmental background may well be perceived as a plus.

That, however, raises the question of why politics is the only profession in which inexperience is something to brag about. When passengers get on airplane, do they think, "I really hope this pilot is a rookie"? When patients go the hospital, do they say to themselves, "I prefer to see physician who hasn't practiced medicine for very long"?

This at least seems worthy of some larger discussion. Romney has less experience in public service than any major-party presidential nominee in 72 years. When evaluating the candidates in 2012, it's not unreasonable to think this should be in the mix.