Obstacles to the White House Three-Peat

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Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (Reagan Library Archives)

In November 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush trounced Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the presidential election, commanding 426 electoral votes and more than 53 percent of the popular vote. In fact, Bush’s triumph remains the only open seat election since the end of World War II in which the nominee of the party holding the White House for eight years defeated the nominee of the challenging party. While it is entirely too early to dissect 2016 polls (remember Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani?), reviewing the past cases may allow us to draw important parallels.

Of the 17 presidential elections since 1948, six were held as an incumbent party completed two terms in the White House and the sitting president did not or could not seek reelection: 1952, 1960, 1968, 1988, 2000, and 2008. 2016 will be the next contest in the series.

I weighed four key factors in evaluating the campaigns:

The popularity of the sitting president. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato wrote recently, the public’s view of the outgoing president’s performance has a significant impact on the election results:

All three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 50% were defeated, and the two seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 40% were decisively defeated. In contrast, two of the three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings above 50% won the popular vote, although one of those candidates, Al Gore in 2000, ended up losing the electoral vote.

While Sabato measures popularity using the final Gallup poll before the November election, I chose to examine the average of all Gallup polls from January through October of the election year. The long view is crucial in politics, especially in an age when the vast majority of voters make up their minds long before Election Day.

Economic growth in the year before the election. Deserving or not, the standing of presidents and their parties are closely tied to the economy. Nate Silver is one of many analysts who have explored the connection between certain economic indicators and election results. For the purposes of this post, I compiled the average quarter-over-quarter growth in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in the four quarters immediately preceding the election. Note that from 1947 through 2014, GDP growth averaged 3.3%.

The relative strength of the two nominees. Admittedly, the final two factors are more qualitative in nature and, no doubt, biased by the final vote totals. Of course, any winner looks like a strong nominee in retrospect; the same can be said for the losers — were the campaigns of Dukakis or Senator John McCain, who lost handily to President Obama in 2008, truly inept, or does history judge them too harshly? I considered the nominees’ national reputation and campaign tactics in gauging their strength.

1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon (AP)

Let’s take a look at the final breakdown:

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The four key factors are underlined in the top row. For each election, I have set in bold and underlined the factors favoring the incumbent party — presidential popularity of at least 50%; GDP growth above the post-World War II average of 3.3%; the relative strength or weakness of the incumbent party nominee; and the relative strength or weakness of the challenging party nominee. The asterisk in the final column for the 2000 election signifies the fact that Gore won the popular vote.

1952 (0/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): There’s little to analyze here. President Harry Truman was profoundly unpopular and the economy was performing at a below average pace. As for the candidates themselves, the beloved war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, had little trouble against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Although Stevenson was respected nationwide as a gifted orator, he struggled to connect with the working class and was criticized for his campaign’s weak television advertisements.

1960 (1/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): Richard Nixon did little to involve Eisenhower in the general election until the final days of the campaign, a strategic blunder that made little sense given the president’s popularity. The last-minute support may have helped, but it was too late. Nixon’s uneven debate performances, paired with slow economic growth and Kennedy’s youthful energy, proved decisive.

1968: (2/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): Discussion of the 1968 election is inseparable from Vietnam. The Tet Offensive had greatly diminished domestic support for the war—Only 35% of respondents in a February Gallup poll approved of President Johnson’s handling of the war. Despite Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s best attempts, it’s difficult to distance yourself from your own administration. Therefore, Nixon, back on a presidential ticket for a fourth time, was able to overcome robust economic growth and a late Humphrey surge.

1988: (4/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): Ronald Reagan’s popularity had taken a hit in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair; nonetheless, he still enjoyed majority support in the months before the 1988 election. Backed by solid growth, Bush took advantage of Dukakis’ inability to respond to often withering advertisements.

2000 (2/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): The 2000 election shared an important aspect with the 1960 election: a relatively weak incumbent party nominee failing to capitalize on his predecessor’s popularity. George W. Bush lost the popular count by approximately 547,000 votes, but did capture the critical battleground states of Florida, New Hampshire, and Ohio.

2008 (0/4 factors favoring the incumbent party): In many ways, 2008 mirrored for Republicans the Democratic backdrop of 1952. The sitting president faced widespread opposition, the incumbent party nominee was well-respected but overwhelmed, and the challenging party nominee garnered immense public enthusiasm. The one major difference between the two elections was the state of the economy. Growth in 1952 was stable enough that had the Republican nomination gone to Senator Robert Taft rather than Eisenhower, Stevenson may have made things interesting. The economic landscape of 2008 was, of course, utter chaos. Another Democratic nominee would have likely won, albeit, with a smaller margin of victory.

Ahead of next year’s presidential primaries, keep an eye on President Obama’s approval rating and the quarterly GDP reports.

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