Do Incumbent Presidents Always Win?

In a recent post on The Beacon, I predicted that President Trump would be reelected in November, because he is the incumbent, and incumbents almost always win. Here are incumbent reelection rates for the Senate and House of Representatives, but how about the presidency?

Let’s consider presidential reelection rates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. I’ll argue that setting aside special circumstances, incumbent presidents have failed to be reelected only twice over that time period.

Most recently, Presidents Obama, Bush (the second), and Clinton were reelected. The first George Bush lost his reelection bid, but I’m calling that a special circumstance because third-party candidate Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote, and most of those votes would have gone to Bush. He would have been reelected were it not for Perot’s strong campaign.

President Reagan was re-elected, but he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter to ascend to the presidency, so Carter is an incumbent who was not reelected. Carter beat Gerald Ford, also the incumbent, but Ford was not elected (he became president when Nixon resigned) and lost popularity because he pardoned Nixon. So I’m counting Ford as a special case too. Ford was never elected, so it’s not just a technicality to say he failed to be reelected.

Prior to Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, Truman, and Roosevelt were all reelected. Herbert Hoover was not. He’s the second incumbent in my count not to be reelected. One might make an argument about Johnson, who served out less than half of President Kennedy’s term after Kennedy was assassinated and could have run again. He chose not to, perhaps thinking that the advantage of incumbency would not be sufficient to overcome his unpopularity. He’s an interesting case because he could have run again but didn’t.

The twentieth century began with McKinley’s reelection in 1900. Every incumbent after that (Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and Coolidge) won reelection until Hoover’s loss. Taft is an interesting case because Roosevelt ran against him as a third-party candidate when, as the incumbent, Taft got the Republican nomination. Unlike the first Bush, Taft still won against a strong third-party candidate (and a popular former president).

So there’s my count. Only two incumbents—Hoover and Carter—failed to win reelection. I’m not counting the first President Bush, as a special case, and noting that President Ford didn’t fail to win reelection because he was never elected. Two cases in a century and two decades. Incumbents almost always win.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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