Defeating Trump

[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

About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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8 Responses to Defeating Trump

  1. Jay, while your analysis is otherwise great, you seem to have missed the simple fact that the electorate today is very different from that which elected, or failed to elect, most of those you studied. For much of the USA’s history, the political parties were very mixed. Both the Republican and the Democratic party had liberal and conservative wings that ensured that our parties were minimally differentiated. We had, for instance, liberal northern Democrats in the same party as conservative, racist Southerners. And, we had both liberal and conservative Republicans. However, the Civil Rights issue, back in the 50’s and 60’s began a process of driving the southern Democrats into the Republican Party while many liberal Democrats moved to the Democratic Party. The result was a “sorting” of the electorate into parties that had more coherent and more differentiated platforms. Thus, each party was able to support candidates whose positions were more extreme than before. Democratic candidates became more liberal and Republican’s more conservative.

    At the same time that the parties were sorting, we also saw a fall off in the frequency of “split-ticket” voting. In the “old days” people often voted more for the candidate than for the party. Thus, it was quite common to see a ballot that supported a Democrat for President but a Republican for Congress or for Dog Catcher (yes, that was sometimes an elected office.) Today, split-ticket voting is much more rare than it ever has been before. People today tend to vote along party lines with little consideration given to the qualities of the individual candidates. (One impact has been the “nationalization” of even local races. One’s local votes are largely determined by national party identity or preference.) We are, in essence, a country that is beginning to behave much more like one with a party-based, parliamentary system. (This was, of course, something that our founders tried hard to prevent in their design for our Constitution.)

    While many people speak of Trump’s qualities, or lack of them, the fear that he might win again is rooted not so much in an analysis of the fortunes of previous candidates but rather in a knowledge that, today, Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate and Republicans vote for the Republican candidate. Given the current Republican advantage, as a result of election district design, etc. many fear that the Republicans still maintain an ability to elect their choice for President, even if a plurality of voters reject him. But, studying the historic record of elections won’t help you understand this, since it is recent changes in the electorate that are driving the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jay Shepherd says:

    I can’t disagree with most of what you’ve said, although I would comment that gerrymandering is not a new practice. Many previous elections have been marred by that practice, although it has less impact on presidential elections than on congressional or state elections.

    My intent, though, is not to say that Trump is going to be defeated. I was trying to assess whether Trump has an insurmountable advantage solely because of incumbency. I think it is clear that he doesn’t. He may have stronger party support than some candidates did in the past, but if the candidate this year were Mike Pence he might have even more party support. There is an incumbency advantage, but it is more limited than most people assume, and it can be squandered by a bad president.

    The question is going to be whether the Democrats can get independents, and some moderate Republicans, due to Trumps unpopularity. Their selection of Democratic presidential (and vice-presidential) candidate will influence that, but even more important will be party unity after a tough primary season.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  3. John DeVenz says:

    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for this post. Many people I speak to have resigned themselves to the belief that Trump is going to get re-elected. I agree with you that he does not have an insurmountable advantage solely because of incumbency – it is not a slam dunk as many think. In fact, I believe it is more likely he will not be re-elected as long as the Dem’s nominate a moderate candidate. If Bernie is the nominee all bets are off.

    Below is a link to Rachel Bitecofer’s twitter. She is data analyst who made the following claim as a result of work she did in 2019 (update report coming by the end of Feb). In short, as long as more democrats get out and vote in 2020 (vs 2016), Trump will not repeat 2016.

    “Trump’s 2016 path to the White House, which was the political equivalent of getting dealt a Royal Flush in poker, is probably not replicable in 2020 with an agitated Democratic electorate.

    Find out why Dems are poised to win the Electoral College.”

    Additionally there are a lot of republicans who are openly talking about voting for a democratic President – prioritizing country over party. One need look no further than George Conway (husband of Kelly Anne) and life long republican who together with many other republicans have established The Lincoln Project. This group continues to raise funds and has produced a professional media campaign – communicating why US voters should not vote for Trump nor some republican Senators like Susan Collins and Martha McSally, as two examples. They are targeting their message to those all important swing states.

    Here is a link to George Conway’s twitter feed:

    Here is a link to The Lincoln Project:
    Here’s an excerpt:
    “We do not undertake this task lightly nor from ideological preference. Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain. However, the priority for all patriotic Americans must be a shared fidelity to the Constitution and a commitment to defeat those candidates who have abandoned their constitutional oaths, regardless of party. Electing Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not is a worthy effort.”

    I believe these two factors – an agitated and angry Democratic electorate (that gets out and votes) and as little as 1-2% of republicans deciding to chose country over party and vote democrat – will make Trump a one term President. I will go a step further and suggest the Senate has a good chance of flipping to the Democrats. As before, if Bernie is the nominee all bets are off.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sharron Curley says:

    Your analysis of past presidents and terms most interesting. Let us hope the statistics work out to a single term for Trump. (We winter in Florida and those we meet (US snowbirds) are very much anti-Trump.) Sigh! We can only hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ernie Vidovic says:

    Thanks for this Jay and the others who have commented. Perhaps as a seguae to your next article you could comment on the fact that while indeed the presidency may be the Dems for the taking, do they actually have a candidate that is strong enough to do it? I sure hope so! I enjoy reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jay Shepherd says:

      Thanks, Ernie. The next part of this article, coming out tomorrow, is about the Democrats’ field of candidates. Last night’s debate confirmed that there are legitimate questions about each of those who want the change to face Trump in November.


  6. George Armstrong says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis Jay. Some time ago I placed a fairly substantial bet with a few family members on the outcome of the coming U.S. election and, lately, I’ve been questioning my judgement. You (and your respondents) have helped to restore my confidence:). Now let’s just hope that the Bernie factor doesn’t come into play!

    Liked by 1 person

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