Economy not key to incumbent winning

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

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?

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.