Defeating an Incumbent President is Nearly Impossible

If Donald Trump wins reelection in November, it will mark an unprecedented four consecutive two-term presidents. The last time there were three was in the early 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe all served two terms. John Quincy Adams, elected in 1824, failed to win reelection when he was defeated by Andrew Jackson’s populist uprising. History shows us that unseating the incumbent president is always a long shot.

The last time a president lost his bid for reelection was nearly thirty years ago, when President George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton. The 1992 election, however, was a perfect storm of problems for the elder Bush. Mere months before the campaign, Bush enjoyed a level of popularity few presidents could even dream of after the successful Gulf War. However, a worsening economy soured voters on the president, especially when he broke his explicit pledge to not raise taxes. Many Republicans turned to the insurgent campaign of independent candidate Ross Perot, who promised a businesslike approach to government. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was being debated at the time and had support from both parties. Perot warned that free trade would lead to massive outsourcing and a decline of manufacturing jobs in America. (History has obviously proved him right on this count.)

The Democratic field that year was initially weak, as nobody wanted to challenge the popular president. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton ended up with the nomination, and presented himself as a young, hip, empathetic figure, contrasted with the older, unflappable, President Bush. Bush was a member of the Greatest Generation, who had fought in World War II – Bush himself had been shot down over the Pacific. Clinton, on the other hand, was a Baby Boomer, young and fresh-faced, who came out of the hippy movement of the 1960s. Clinton had avoided the Vietnam War, which hurt him with military veterans. However, with Perot splitting the conservative / libertarian vote, Clinton came out on top, despite falling well short of a majority of the popular vote.

Since then, no president has lost his bid for a second term. Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole in 1996, as a strong economy and few foreign conflicts gave voters no reason to change. In 2004, President George W. Bush improved on his initial numbers from 2000, defeating the weak John Kerry. Finally, despite a poor economy, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012. Of all the reelection campaigns in recent memory, this one should have been harder for the sitting president. The economy, which had crashed just before Obama took office, was still incredibly weak. Unemployment was high and wages were down. The Republicans nominated what they thought would be a solid ticket: Mitt Romney was a former governor and businessman and running mate Paul Ryan was known as a budget guy and policy wonk. Yet Obama basically coasted to reelection. Why?

For one, there was no Ross Perot in 2012. The populist nationalism that would explode in 2016 through Donald Trump was still simmering beneath the surface. The Tea Party movement, originally formed in reaction to Obama’s tax and healthcare positions, had long ago been coopted by the GOP establishment who redirected its energy toward the usual Chamber of Commerce platform of low taxes without regard to the national questions of immigration and culture. Romney himself tended to treat Obama with kid gloves, even as the president and his surrogates ferociously savaged Romney in the campaign, even going so far as accusing him of killing a man because Romney’s company had laid him off at one point.

So, what does that mean for the 2020 election? If you go to any left-wing social media group, you might come away thinking that Donald Trump is the most unpopular president in history, and that the Democrats could run a mannequin and still win easily. However, this ignores both history and the preferences of the country as a whole. Trump won in 2016 by promising to control the border, renegotiate trade deals, bring our troops home, and fix the economy. While his work on the border is ongoing, he is making progress – illegal crossings have significantly decreased in recent months. He has taken care of bad trade deals, is working on withdrawing troops, and the economy is booming. While the COVID-19 outbreak might cause some economic issues, it might well recover by Election Day. In short, the president has kept most of his promises and the economic situation of most American people is better now than it was four years ago.

An incumbent president has access to the largest megaphone in the world. Every tiny utterance of President Trump is headline news. More than 73 million people follow the president on Twitter, receiving messages unfiltered by mainstream media. For many low-information voters, picking a candidate is more about brand recognition than policy positions. Who in America has a more well-known brand than Donald Trump?

The current crop of Democratic contenders does not inspire confidence, either. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, who was able to create a large contrast with President Bush. In 2020, the Democrats will be nominating either the outright socialist Bernie Sanders or the fanciful and forgetful Joe Biden. Both men are, believe it or not, older than President Trump! Because the odds of ousting an incumbent president are so high to begin with, that is the time to swing for the fences and take a chance with your nominee. The Democrats are either too afraid to step outside mainstream conventional wisdom, or they believe their own hype about Trump’s vulnerability.

Barring some black swan event in the next nine months, Donald Trump will be reelected and become the fourth consecutive president to serve two terms. In the late Roman Republic, power grew increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few, as single-term consuls were replaced by men serving many consecutive terms, and eventually into dictators-for-life like Sulla and Caesar. I hope that President Trump is able to use his second term to finish the job of draining the swamp, otherwise he will end up being only a speed bump in the decline and fall of America.

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