Obama’s Victory And The Power of Incumbency In The Modern Era

A reporter recently emailed asking me to comment on the following observation: “This is the first time in American history since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe that the United States has elected three consecutive presidents to two terms (Clinton, Bush, Obama). I was wondering if you had any thoughts regarding why there has been a gap of almost 200 years between the first and second occurrence of this?”  Those who were in attendance on Election Night at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe heard me reference this fact in the form of a trivia question.

And that’s largely what I think this is: trivia.  As I told the reporter, I think there’s much less here than meets the eye. That is, if you view this historical oddity as an indication of just how hard it is for a president to win reelection, you are likely misreading history.  In fact, if you look at the so-called “modern” presidential era which scholars typically date to the post-FDR period, one is struck by the power of incumbency. Indeed, the more surprising fact is that there are incumbents who lost their bid for reelection in this era.  Let’s run down the list:

There have been a dozen presidents in the post-FDR era.  Of these, all but Kennedy had an opportunity to run for reelection.  Among the remaining 11, only Ford, Carter and Bush I failed in their reelection bid.  Ford’s effort fell just short which, in retrospect, was an impressive performance given the Watergate-induced backlash against all things Republican in 1976.  Bush I’s 1992 reelection bid was undoubtedly negatively affected by the presence of a strong third-party candidate in the person of Ross Perot, who won nearly 20% of the popular vote.  To this day Bush believes Perot cost him reelection.  That leaves only Carter among the dozen who lost a straight up bid for reelection under “normal” political circumstances.

Put another way, if we “adjust” our calculations to address the modern presidents who initially took office by non-electoral means, the “gap” between Monroe and Obama seems much less meaningful. So, we can consider Truman, who took office less than three months into FDR’s final term, as essentially a two-term president.  Similarly, the eight years under JFK-LBJ, and the eight years under Nixon-Ford, can also be viewed as two-term presidencies, since neither Kennedy nor Nixon were removed by electoral defeat. From this perspective, it turns out that from 1944 through 1976 we saw four consecutive two-term presidents.  If we step back one administration, FDR makes it five-plus.  Viewed in this way, the real question becomes: how did Carter lose?

My point is that it is difficult to defeat a sitting president in the modern era.  Yes, I understand that both Truman and LBJ opted not to run again in part because of their electoral vulnerability, but both had won election in their own right at least one time. By comparison, if we look at the pre-FDR sitting presidents who won their party’s nomination, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation almost half – eight of 18 – went down to defeat in their first bid for reelection.

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era?  One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted – albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner – that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

A note to readers: the audience for  this blog has expanded considerably in the last year and for that I am very appreciative.  Thus it is with some regret that I am announcing that I will be posting much less frequently during the next several months.  I have a book deadline, and added administrative duties, that are cutting into my blogging time.  This is not to say I will stop posting completely – I’m still going to respond to the most egregious punditry errors (“Obama Won A Mandate!”  “Most Voters Want Unified Democratic Control!”), particularly when political science provides some insight and/or countervailing evidence.  And I’ll try to keep up with the major events affecting the presidency, but perhaps not quite as regularly as in the past.  Of course, I encourage you to submit questions – I will try to get to them in due time.  And, as always, I thank you for reading, and for participating in what are almost always very interesting discussions – and for not turning this site into still another partisan-driven echo chamber.  Lord knows we have enough of those out there already.


  1. I believe that the effect of incumbency was diluted this year in view of the disastrous field of Republican candidates and the bigotry/hate exhibited by the Republican base. These two strikes all but guaranteed the re-election of President Obama.

    And I still think you vastly underestimated the effect of Republican gerrymandering in 2010.

  2. Henry – I’m not sure what you mean by the effects of incumbency being diluted, particularly since the rest of your comment suggests there was a backlash against Republican bigotry, which seems to suggest that Obama did better than expected?

    As for gerrymandering, while the issue is not settled, the best evidence so far suggests gerrymandering was not the primary reason Republicans held the House. See the post at the Monkey Cage by Nicholas Goedart (http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/11/15/not-gerrymandering-but-districting-more-evidence-on-how-democrats-won-the-popular-vote-but-lost-the-congress/): “Expanding on recent posts by Dan Hopkins and Eric McGhee, there appears to be evidence at a state-by-state level that the disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats is not just due to Republican gerrymanders, but due to a skewed geographic distribution of population putting the Democrats at an inherent disadvantage…that is, the Democrats’ loss in the House was caused largely not by gerrymandering, but districting itself.”

    Put another way, as I noted in my post, while gerrymandering may have cost Democrats a few seats, it did not cost them a majority – that is primarily due to wasted Democratic votes based on residential patterns.

  3. Is it possible that another advantage for modern incumbents is the extra time/resources they have to plan their campaigns? The impact of “project Narwhal” on the election has of course been exaggerated by media reports, but the fact that at least it could operate (unlike its “Orca” counterpart) suggests that having four years to plan a reelection campaign may be an asset. (If pre-modern campaigns demanded less organization, this advantage was less relevant then).

  4. El Cri (and what a wonderful moniker that is!) – I don’t doubt that presidents gain some advantage from the advent of the candidate-centered campaign, compared to the days when parties were responsible for running the show. And it clearly the case that the campaign starts earlier. I would note, however, that Romney had essentially four years – or more – to run for the presidency as well. The difference may be that incumbents rarely face a nomination challenge, which means they can focus much earlier on the general election campaign.

  5. There are precious few instances of one party holding the Presidency for one term and then giving it up anyway. Harrison/Tyler-Polk-Taylor/Fillmore-Pierce had both elected Whigs die in office and Polk simply decide not to seek a second term out of exhaustion. Cleveland-Harrison-Cleveland-McKinley had Cleveland win the popular vote in all three years with fraud playing a notable role in at least one state in 1888 when he got Gore’d. The only uncomplicated instance of it happening was Ford-Carter-Reagan.

  6. Yes. This is the reason Abramowitz includes the party tenure variable in his forecast model.

  7. Yes, I think that basically having a lock on the nomination is what allows incumbents to focus earlier on the general election. In fact, I guess the only two recent incumbents who faced a moderately serious primary challenger (Carter and Bush 41) are the ones who didn’t get reelected. Of course, facing a challenger may have been a consequence of their weakness more than a cause in itself.

    Ha, the nickname has a long story…

  8. It has always been difficult to defeat an incumbent President. Between 1900 and 1950, only 2 Presidents lost re-election: Taft (1912) and Hoover (1932). Taft was defeated by a split in the GOP, facing Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Hoover was victimized by the Great Crash of 1929. No one in his party even dared challenge him because they knew the GOP was toast. He lost to the affable FDR who won 4 terms.

    Since WWII, only Ford, Carter and Bush have lost. Ford was never even elected VP, so he was hardly an incumbent and was facing the Watergate fallout. Carter saw huge GDP fall in 1980 as well as the Iran Hostage Crisis. Bush faced the 1991-1992 Recession. Carter and Bush were felled by Reagan and Clinton, two of our most charismatic leaders ever.

    TV and the Cold War are not the factors. People like their leaders, unless they have a very good reason not to. That’s why re-election heavily favors incumbents, and not just on the Presidential level.

  9. AxelDC – Thanks for the comment. Actually, there is evidence suggesting that the rise of television – particularly local coverage – may be one factor that increased the size of the “incumbency advantage” for House candidates beginning in the 1960’s. By incumbency advantage, I mean the added benefit a House candidate gets by virtue of being the incumbent. As you note – and as several others have as well – it has never been easy to defeat an incumbent president, although I think, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, that it may be even more difficult in the modern age. We can debate whether that is true, and if so why.

  10. David – There’s some debate among academics regarding just how many votes Perot cost Bush – note that it is Bush himself who claims that Perot cost him the election.

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