In the United States, there has been a trend in the media over the last 20 years or so of focusing on the horse race aspects of politics. This effectively means that political races are distilled to their most dumbed-down core: popularity contests. Daily newsflashes about a figure's approval rating are seen as truly significant findings while discussions about substantive policy views aren't given much attention beyond a handful of talking points determined by the presenter's own political orientation. This led to the formalization of a concept called the permanent campaign in the 1970s and 1980s and the ever increasing duration of what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as "the election cycle." The idea behind the permanent campaign is that policy initiatives need to be presented to the public in the same way as a normal electoral campaign and that a policy's message needs to be crafted and tempered with public approval in mind. Accordingly, what this has the effect of doing is putting the discourse and analysis about policy proposals at the same level given to elections -- i.e., that of the aforementioned horse race. This has caused each election cycle to begin with the conclusion of the one immediately preceding it with no intermediary period of relaxation or reflection. For example, the 2010 election cycle began essentially after the end of the 2008 elections and now that the 2010 elections are over, the 2012 election cycle has already begun.

With that in mind, the biggest horse race of American politics is naturally the presidential election. And as fate would have it, the 2012 election cycle features a presidential election. Wow, aren't we lucky! "No" is the correct answer, by the way. As the current sitting president, Barack Obama will almost certainly stand for reelection in 2012. It's no secret that the elections of 2010 were not particularly kind to the President or his party, but does the current political climate really matter two years down the road? After all, the 2008 elections were great for Democrats and there was much thinly-veiled rejoicing in the media over the outcome, with Newsweek making the declaration that "We Are All Socialists Now" in a February 2009 issue and other outlets predicting that the Democrats would enjoy Congressional control for a generation. Well, that didn't quite pan out. In determining Obama's chances for reelection at such an early stage, then, the only thing we can really look at is historical precedent.


Statistically speaking, it's a fact in American politics that incumbency is typically a good predictor of electoral success. The reasons for this are debatable, but this trend is particularly prominent in legislative politics (at both the federal and state levels) where there are fewer term limit restrictions. Most executive offices -- including that of President of the United States of America -- do not permit a person to serve more than two full terms in that office. Generally speaking this prohibits an incumbent from seeking reelection more than once, although the wording of the Constitution of the United States is somewhat ambiguous in that it possibly allows an office-holder to serve more than two terms as long as any subsequent terms beyond the initial two are nonconsecutive. But that's really academic, so I'll circle back to the main point.

Essentially, I'm going to look at every U.S. Presidential election in history and from there determine the effect of incumbency on retaining office. I won't bore you by actually talking in depth about every presidential election, but I will make note of a few different historical trends. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that not all elections have incumbents running in them. Actually, a surprisingly large number of elections have not featured incumbents. Chiefly, this is for one of three reasons: first, although the constitutional restriction on Presidents serving no more than two terms was only codified legally in the 1940s, it had been an established tradition since the first President, George Washington, declined to seek more than two terms in office and most of his successors followed suit; second, dying in office kind of precludes someone from running for reelection; and third, the occasional failure of an incumbent to seek or receive his party's nomination to run for President in the general election. Accordingly, elections in which an incumbent president did not run for reelection will not be considered as part of the incumbent retention ratio.

Raw Data

For ease of navigation (if you don't want to read what I write), I'm going to list the elections in order by year and then bold elections with incumbents and then bold and italicize years in which incumbents ran and won. That said, let's get started!


There have been 56 U.S. Presidential elections to date. Of these 56, 31 of them (55%) featured incumbents running. Out of these 31 elections, incumbents won 21 of them (67%). By this metric, presidential incumbency is a reasonably good predictor of reelection, but it's hardly a sure thing. Looking at raw numbers, Obama has about a 2/3 chance of being reelected in 2012. However, there are some other factors that might not bode quite as well for him. For starters, if Obama were reelected, it would be the first time since James Monroe's second election in 1820 that three consecutive presidents were all elected to two full terms. For that matter, there have only ever been four Democrats (Jackson, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Clinton) to be elected to two terms, compared to seven Republicans (Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II). There has also never been an instance of a Democratic President being elected to two terms immediately following a two-term Republican President (while there is precedent for the opposite).

Aside from party, unsuccessful incumbents have a few things in common. In every election since 1888 (with the exception of the 1976 election) in which an incumbent was defeated, the primary issue leading to the President's defeat was a poor economic climate. Well, needless to say, the economy is one of the chief reasons that Obama was elected in 2008 and one of the chief reasons that his party performed so poorly in 2010. If the economy turns around between now and the official start of the President's reelection campaign, then there is a pretty decent likelihood that Obama could be reelected failing any serious scandals or disasters. If things stay the same or get worse, history indicates that Obama will likely get the boot (unless of course his inevitable Republican challenger is just that much more negatively perceived).

Speaking of challengers, another good predictor of an incumbent's likely failure to be reelected is the experience of a serious primary challenge for the nomination in a reelection year contest. I'm not talking about silly, perrennial primary challenges from people like Lyndon LaRouche. In the elections of 1992, 1980, 1976, and 1912, the defeated incumbents all endured serious battles for the nomination. Despite each man winning his respective renomination bid, he failed in the general election. In 1992, Pat Buchanan challenged Bush, Edward Kennedy challenged Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan challenged Ford in 1976 (somewhat condescendingly offering him a spot as his running mate despite the fact that Ford was the sitting president), and Theodore Roosevelt went up against his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1912 (when he was unsuccessful in this venture, Roosevelt founded his own party and wound up winning more electoral votes than Taft and splitting the Republican vote enough to give the election to Wilson). As of yet, no Democrat has stepped forward to mount a campaign against Obama, but it's not inconceivable. Some pundits have predicted a possible challenge from former Senator Russ Feingold, although the seriousness of this is debatable. The problem with a primary challenge against a sitting President is that it demonstrates a lack of confidence in his abilities among a significant portion of his base. It's a common misconception that the base can't decide a general election; in fact, in every case, the failure of a candidate's base to show sufficient enthusiasm translates into depressed turnout for that candidate and almost always results in the failure of that person's bid. It is ironic that Obama is in the precarious situation of being attacked from the left by Congressional Democrats for not being liberal enough while simultaneously being characterized as the most liberal President ever by his Republican opponents.


Overall, the omens are mixed. While 2/3 of incumbent presidents have been reelected in races they have contested, historical trends in other areas don't necessarily favor President Obama. Clinton and Reagan both presided over times of relative prosperity while Bush II and Roosevelt II were able to parlay citizens' anxieties about war and economic uncertainty (and their handling of these issues) into successful reelection bids. Obama effectively owns the economy as an issue now and has essentially staked his Presidency on being able to fix it. He's in a similar position with the war(s), meaning that he needs to convince the public through concrete action that he can manage both an economic recovery and armed conflict successfully if he has any hope of being reelected.

To win in 2012, Obama needs to keep his base together, demonstrate real economic improvement (as in a significant, consistent, sustained reduction in the rate of unemployment over the next 18 months), and either successfully end or at least improve conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. To lose, he needs to not do any of that, much of which is realistically beyond his direct control. My gut feeling is that although Obama will not be able to do all (or any) of that, the Republicans will disastrously nominate Sarah Palin for the 2012 election, squandering their only opportunity to make him a one-term President. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Bonus Round: Why Being the Vice President Sucks

FDR's first Vice President, John Nance Garner, famously remarked that his office "isn't worth a bucket of warm piss." In terms of its being a stepping-stone to the Presidency, he's pretty accurate. "That's counterintuitive!" you argue. "Lots of veeps go on to be President." Well...yes, but only if their boss dies. There have only been four instances in American politics where a VP who became President after the death of his predecessor went on to win reelection in their own right: LBJ, Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge. Not only that, it is exceedingly rare for a sitting Vice President to win a Presidential election at the conclusion of his running mate's term. This has only happened on four occasions: when John Adams succeeded George Washington, when Thomas Jefferson succeeded John Adams, when Martin van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson, and finally when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. In every other instance, the candidates in question either lost their respective general elections or did not even receive their parties' nominations. To sum it up, if you want to be President one day, do yourself a favor and never be the Vice President!

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