What 1932, 1980 and 1992 can tell us about 2020

Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of "Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King" (Oxford University Press). He tweets @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)With the 2020 presidential election less than a week away, the prospect once more looms of a challenger unseating an entrenched incumbent president. If Democratic candidate Joe Biden were to win when the results are finalized, he would make Republican President Donald Trump just the 11th incumbent in American history to try, but fail, to secure reelection.

In the last century, only three regularly elected incumbents -- Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush -- have lost their reelection bids. With incumbency so powerful a force, why did these three presidents fail?
Thomas Balcerski
Besides weathering tough economic times, each of these three failed incumbents demonstrated a fatal character flaw. Hoover followed a rigid way of thinking about the Great Depression afflicting the nation in the early 1930s; Carter exhibited a lethargic attitude about the economic malaise of the late 1970s; and Bush seemed out of touch with the problems facing the average American in the early 1990s.
Today's economic uncertainty is not a new feature of presidential elections. But when such crises occur during a sitting president's reelection campaign, voters have historically turned him out in favor of a challenger offering a new direction for the nation. In short, incumbents fail when they cannot convince the American people to stay the course.
    Taken together, these embattled incumbents still provide a recipe for electoral disaster in American politics -- let's explore each in greater detail.