[This is the first of a two-part musing about the 2020 American presidential election. Today, a short piece on “Can Trump be defeated?” Next week, “Who will win the Democratic nomination?”
Please forgive me. I couldn’t resist.]
I am struck by the depressing sentiment I hear from many people in the U.S. that Donald Trump, as an incumbent president, has an insurmountable advantage in the upcoming presidential election.
Maybe there’s a reason for this feeling, I thought. Don’t just discount it because the idea of the American public repeating the same mistake twice is incomprehensible. Maybe the feeling of impending doom has a basis in fact.
Seeking information, I went to the history of U.S. presidential elections, expecting to find that, indeed, when a person has been elected president once, they almost invariably win if they run for a second term.
I looked at the elections since 1824, when the modern method of electing presidents started. (Some would exclude 1824, but I included it.) Thirty-eight presidents have been elected using that system.
Much of this was new to me. As a Canadian, I never studied U.S. presidential history in school, and in any case I’m probably less drawn to history than most true nerds. Nevertheless, the subject has many interesting characters, and more than a little intrigue. Certainly not dry.
So, is there an incumbency advantage? Apparently, not so much.
Of twenty-two presidents that have been elected once, and then sought re-election, seven of them lost the next election, and two more (Pierce and Hayes) didn’t even get re-nominated. (A 41% failure rate). Of those re-elected, one (Cleveland) was actually defeated in his first attempt to get re-elected, but came back four years later and was successful.
Two elected presidents (Polk and Buchanan) did not make a second run at it. Both would almost certainly have lost.
In addition, of the nine presidents that succeeded to the presidency through the vice-presidency, four were not re-nominated by their parties, one (Ford) was nominated and lost, and four won their subsequent re-election bids. Two of those latter four (Truman and Johnson) then wanted to try for a second re-election, but neither succeeded in garnering the nomination. Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate on his second try at re-election, but lost, and Coolidge famously declined to run for a third term, saying ten years was too long for one person to be president.
Thus, only sixteen incumbent presidents have been re-elected, and three of those were spurned when they went after further re-election. Of the other twenty-two, only three walked away from the chance. Five died during their first term, thirteen tried to get re-elected, but failed, and one got re-elected on his second attempt.
The reason we think that incumbency is such an advantage is that, of the eight presidents immediately preceding Donald Trump, five of them were elected twice (Nixon, Reagan, G.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama), while three of them were not (Ford, Carter, G.H.W. Bush). Thus, there has been a recent history of apparent incumbency advantage, at least slightly more than has been the case throughout U.S. history.
However, there are some other interesting facts to ponder. Of those thirty-eight presidents elected, only twenty-one of their first elections were in essentially two-person races. The rest had strong third party or even fourth party candidates that skewed the data. This is relevant because 2020 is also likely to be a two-person race, as was 2016.
Of those incumbents who were re-elected, and who were elected first in a two-person race (eight of them), six had a majority of the votes in their first election, from FDR at 57.4% in 1932 and Jackson at 56.0% in 1828, down to McKinley at 51.0% in 1896. Only Cleveland, at 48.9% in 1884, and George W. Bush, at 47.9% in 2000, had less than a majority. Cleveland lost his next election to Harrison, but won on his third try four years later. Bush was re-elected, but had already joined a select group bearing the ignominy of becoming president while being rejected by a majority of the voters.
Further, of the two presidents that won two-person races, and then were not re-nominated, both (Polk and Hayes) had less than 50% of the vote in their election win.
Donald Trump had 46.0% of the vote in his 2016 election, in fact losing the popular vote to his opponent. No person except Trump has ever won the presidency in a two-person race with 46% or less of the popular vote.
Trump takes that a step further, though, because he is one of only five presidents who lost the popular vote, but still won the presidency. Of the four previous “elected losers”, two ran for re-election and lost (Adams and Harrison), while one tried to get re-nominated and failed (Hayes). Only George W. Bush won a second term, and despite the overhang from 9/11, and a strong economy from 2002-2004 (much higher than today), his re-election was still pretty close.
None of the previous elected losers lost as badly as Trump. Trump’s losing margin (to Hillary Clinton) of 2.65 million votes is about five times that of the next largest losing margin, the 0.54 million vote loss by George W. Bush (to Al Gore). At least Bush lost a close one. Trump simply got trounced.
And it gets even worse. Since 1945, Donald Trump is the first president (out of thirteen in that time frame) who has had net disapproval ratings by the U.S. public for all of his first term. Even Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, all of whom failed to get re-elected, had better approval ratings than Trump, both up to this point in their presidencies, and overall. All of these former presidents (except Trump) averaged positive public approval over most of their first term, and no incumbent got re-elected with a negative approval rating.
Incumbency has a lot of pluses, whether fiscal, political, or psychological. On the other hand, the public sees what an incumbent does. An incumbency advantage can also be an incumbency disadvantage in the right hands.
In this case, the U.S.A. has a president who won by a fluke, and is a certified rotten apple. Historically, presidents who have not managed to get the approval of a majority of Americans, and did not have a solid win the first time around, have an uphill battle to win again.
All of this suggests that the White House is there for the taking by the Democrats. They can still screw it up (that being the subject of the next part of this article), but if they don’t, Trump – arguably one of the worse American presidents in their history – will be a one-term president.
- Jay Shepherd, February 15, 2020