Skip to main content

Economy not key to incumbent winning

By Kenneth C. Davis, Special to CNN
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Thu November 1, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ken Davis: Pundits and press say economy is the key to whether incumbent is reelected
  • But history shows it's never as simple as jobs, taxes, deficits and debt, Davis says
  • Political and legitimacy, likeability issues, he says, have sunk incumbent in boom times
  • Davis: Same issues and others have buoyed incumbents on to reelection despite bad economy

Editor's note: Historian Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don't Know Much About History" and, most recently, "Don't Know Much About the American Presidents." He blogs at dontknowmuch.com

(CNN) -- Is a struggling economy the key ingredient that dooms an incumbent president to a single term?

The carved-in-stone political wisdom seems to suggest it is. Unemployment rates, the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, and GDP growth are held up by pundits and press as the essential indicators of whether a sitting president keeps the keys to the White House.

The trouble is -- and as history shows -- it's never as simple as jobs, taxes, deficits and debt.

Here's the presidential scoreboard. Starting with George Washington's 1792 reelection, 19 incumbents have been returned to office, while another eight were either denied the nomination or chose not to run, usually over political, not economic, issues. Five presidents died during their first term. That leaves 10 first-term presidents who lost their re-election bids.

Pop quiz: Why did these "one-term wonders" lose?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



An economy in the dumpster was a decisive factor in only four of those 10 incumbent losses: Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush were turned out of office largely because of ailing economies.

Opinion: Are Obama, Romney ignoring Mexico's drug war?

America's eighth president, Martin Van Buren, had the misfortune of occupying the White House during the Panic of 1837, one of the nation's first and most severe economic downturns. Cast as "Martin Van Ruin" and attacked for his "lavish" White House expenditures and dandified style, Van Buren lost overwhelmingly in 1840 to William Henry Harrison by 234-60 electoral votes.

What Hurricane Sandy means for economy
Obama, Romney look-alikes cashing in
Orlando mayor on the economy

Nearly a century later, Herbert Hoover had "General Prosperity" on his side in his 1928 victory. But following the Crash of '29, Hoover had to run against "General Depression," as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The economy was the only issue as Roosevelt swept 42 of 48 states and more than 57% of the popular vote.

More recently, Jimmy Carter was saddled with a dysfunctional economy beset by inflation, slow growth, and oil shocks from the Middle East as he faced reelection in 1980. These economic woes were compounded as television ticked off the number of days that Americans were held hostage in Iran and an ill-fated rescue mission ended in disaster. Despite the landmark 1978 Camp David peace accord Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt, it was Ronald Reagan's famous debate question -- "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" -- that doomed the former peanut farmer, crushed in the electoral vote 489-49.

Finally, George H.W. Bush, or "41," fell victim to a sputtering economy in his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton: a race complicated by the presence of third-party candidate Ross Perot. That was when the famous Clinton "war room" gave birth to the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," which has influenced political thinking ever since.

But consider the flip side: the incumbents who won in spite of an ailing economy.

America's ongoing calamity did not dim the chances of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over a basket-case economy by most measures in 1936.

Depression still ravaged the nation, with unemployment near 17% that year. But the election was a referendum on Roosevelt and his New Deal. At a rally in New York, FDR said of his opponents, "They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred." Carrying every state but Maine and Vermont, FDR swept to a second term.

Opinion: Don't let superstorm sway your vote

Four years later, the economy was still limping with nearly 15% unemployment. But these financial woes were an afterthought, as war in Europe loomed and FDR's bid for an unprecedented third term became the issues. Again, the "Champ" prevailed, convincingly flooring Wendell L. Willkie, who had no counterpunch for the Roosevelt magic. FDR's ability to connect with average Americans, a mysterious alchemy, has rarely been matched in presidential history.

And it was a touch of that alchemy that Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, mustered when his prospects plunged in 1948. Despite succeeding the fallen FDR in 1945 and overseeing the final victory over Germany and Japan, Truman was saddled with inflation, high taxes, labor strife and corruption in Washington.

But he triumphed in one of the most astonishing "off the mat" finishes in political history. Truman did it by embarking on an extraordinary campaign that targeted a "do-nothing Congress" and argued that the Republican opposition was more interested in "the welfare of the better classes."

Finally, what does history say about one-term losers unhorsed in fairly good times?

America's second president, John Adams, and his son, sixth president John Quincy Adams, were the first two incumbents to be sent packing after their terms, for what today are called "likeability" issues. Both presidents served in periods of relative peace and prosperity. But John Adams was turned out of office in 1800 in favor of Thomas Jefferson, largely over politics and personality, not economic policy.

Caricatured as an out-of-touch elitist, his son, John Quincy Adams ran against Andrew Jackson, the "man of the people" you wanted to have a beer with, in the brutal campaign of 1832, one of the nastiest in presidential history and one that had little to do with pocketbook issues.

Opinion: How the media trivialize the election

In 1912, President William Howard Taft was also caught in a tsunami of personality, swamped when his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt tried to regain the "bully pulpit" of the White House. After an epic nominating battle, "Bull Moose" Roosevelt mounted a third-party challenge and the two men split the Republican vote, paving the way for Woodrow Wilson's victory. Taft's defeat after a single term had little to do with dollars and deficits -- except perhaps his charisma deficit.

More recently, Gerald Ford's 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter certainly had an economic element as inflation and recession mingled in "stagflation." But it was other issues -- including his pardon of Richard Nixon, a devastating debate gaffe over the Soviet Union, and the perception that Ford lacked legitimacy as an unelected president -- that were his undoing.

Legitimacy was also a factor after Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland, the popular winner in 1888, by winning the electoral vote that year. It was a campaign tainted by widespread charges of election fraud. Four years later, Cleveland regained the White House by ousting Harrison, whose personality never won over those convinced that the Republicans had "stolen" the election.

Assuming that the economy is the overwhelmingly decisive element in presidential elections relies on the "fallacy of a single cause." That is a black-and-white thinking style born of a desire for a simple narrative that tidily explains everything, when the real story is always far more complicated.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kenneth Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:52 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT