Every so often, you'll see articles with titles like "Top 10 Presidents" or "the Best and Worst American Presidents" ranked in some sort of numerical order. Generally, you'll see George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan toward the tops of these lists with some lip service occasionally paid to men like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and James Madison. The dregs of the list are usually people like Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, and Martin van Buren. While it's not true 100% of the time, the "best" presidents are usually those who were elected to more than one term while the "worst" tend to be those who were not reelected. Who were these failed incumbents and what caused them to lose the highest office in the land?

In a previous essay, I looked at the data for all Presidential Elections in US history and determined that while a sitting president statistically has a greater chance of being reelected than not, this favorable historical trend might not necessarily help the current president in 2012 given the potentially conflicting influence of other factors. Where that essay was more driven by statistics and numbers, this one will deal with more abstract concepts that are not as easy to quantify as whether or not someone was reelected. Put another way, the previous essay asked "did this happen?" This one asks "why did this happen?"

Before I get started, I have to define what I'm talking about. I'm going to define a "one-term" President as someone who held the office and stood for reelection but failed to win. While this seems pretty elementary, history is a little bit more complicated. Several Presidents have died in office, whether naturally or through assassination, the majority of them being in their first (and only) terms. Obviously, you can't be reelected if you're dead. There were also a handful of incumbent Presidents who decided not to seek reelection in the first place, whether it was because they knew they wouldn't win (like James Buchanan) or because they simply didn't want to (James K. Polk, for example). Theoretically, this includes all two-term Presidents prior to the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, which legally prohibits Presidents from being elected to more than two terms or from serving for more than 10 consecutive years (e.g., a Vice President serving half of a deceased President's term and then serving two full terms in his or her own right); it was a matter of tradition rather than law that caused these men not to stand for reelection. To date, only two US Presidents (Harry Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson) have been eligible to take advantage of this, but both declined to run for full second terms. Presidents who fall into this category are also removed from consideration. There were actually also several sitting Presidents in the 19th century who were not renominated by their parties to run for reelection in the first place. Whether it was because of a weak political position on the part of the President (Andrew Johnson) or political maneuvering on the part of the President's political enemies within his own party (Franklin Pierce), they simply were not given the opportunity to serve again. Relatedly, some former Presidents ran for nonconsecutive terms, sometimes for different parties. Since they weren't incumbents at the time of these campaigns, these runs won't be counted either.

What we're left over with, then, are 10 races in which incumbents failed to be reelected. The ten men who weren't able to secure reelection were as different as night and day and ran all across the spectrums of party, policy, performance, and popularity. Despite their differences, their circumstances reflect a few commonalities that should emerge as they are discussed, particularly with regard to the more recent elections.

The Losers

The first one-term president was the Federalist John Adams. He had served as Washington's Vice President and was instrumental in securing European support for the American Revolution and in bringing the war to its political conclusion in Paris in 1783. From the time of his election in 1796, however, he was beset with two major political problems: the fractured nature of his own party and opposition from his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. At this time in American history, there was no such thing as a party "ticket" as we understand it today: the President was whoever received the largest number of electoral votes and the Vice President was the runner up. In this unfortunate instance, Adams' VP was one of his bitterest political opponents from the rival Democratic Republican Party.

He had problems with foreign policy as well: while the core of the Federalist Party was primarily comprised of Anglophile business interests in New England, the Republicans and the popular mood of the rest of the country favored France. Adams was not a Francophile by any means, but he also remembered with bitterness his poor treatment in England as the United States' first ambassador to Great Britain. After the French Revolution, America ceased paying its debts to France, claiming that the United States owed money directly to the now abolished French crown rather than the state itself. Relations between the two countries grew increasingly hostile with the French seizing American ships and Adams requesting (and receiving) a Congressional mandate to attack French ships in what has become known as the Quasi War. Opinion in the country swung against France and there were clamors for a declaration of war. Adams wisely declined to pursue this course of action, instead preferring a diplomatic resolution. Adams' own party was aghast, concerned that a lasting peace with France would hurt relations with Britain and thus business. He was viewed unfavorably by the public as well, with his desire for negotiations viewed as inaction at best and cowardice at worst.

The debacle with France cost Adams quite a bit politically. In some states, certain Republicans began agitating for secession and possible revolt. Controversially, Adams rammed the legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts through Congress, which, among other things, made it illegal to speak out against the government and required resident aliens to live in the United States for 14 years before becoming eligible for citizenship (previously, 5 years had been the requirement). While in practice the laws weren't exactly vehemently enforced, Jefferson and the Republicans were able to use them to depict Adams as a tyrant. The rebellion against Adams within his own party resulted in the Federalists running Charles Pinckney in opposition to him in the election of 1800 as well as the Republicans running Jefferson and Aaron Burr. While the electoral votes were ultimately rather tight (73 for Jefferson vs. 65 for Adams), the popular vote was a landslide for the Republicans. Although a real war with France was averted by Adams' diplomacy and Napoleon's unwillingness to alienate a potential ally against Great Britain, Adams could not withstand the withering attacks by both his own party and the opposition. Ultimately, the Federalist party itself ceased to exist as a major political force after this election and eventually dissolved in 1820. Politics in the United States would come to be dominated by factions of the Democratic Republican party for the next three decades.

The next one-term President was Adams' son, John Quincy Adams. Adams was elected President in 1824 in an extremely heated and controversial race. Like his father, he served with distinction in the foreign diplomatic service and was seen as a reliably conservative, pro-business New Englander. He had served as James Monroe's Secretary of State, and this was generally seen as the most important stepping stone to the Presidency at the time. The 1824 race was a mess all around: four candidates eventually stood in the election and the vote broke down largely along regional lines. Adams did not actually win either the popular or electoral vote: that distinction went to the war hero and military governor of Florida Andrew Jackson. Because no candidate captured the majority required for victory in the Electoral College, the contest was sent to the House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House at the time was Henry Clay, who coincidentally had run in the 1824 election and had garnered the smallest number of votes, forcing him to not stand for the election in the House. Clay detested Jackson and viewed him as little more than a butcher, so he gave his support to Adams. Adams easily won the election and subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, which prompted claims that some sort of "corrupt bargain" had been reached between the two.

Unfortunately, Adams was hamstrung by political resistance from the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic Republican Party. While he did much to secure America's future economically, his Indian policies were considered too lax and his foreign policy was virtually nonexistent due to the lack of Congressional support. The election of 1828 against Andrew Jackson was even more bitter than the election of 1800, and represented a political nadir that was unequaled up until the 20th century. At that time, it was considered inappropriate for candidates to personally campaign, so their friends and allies did it for them. Adams took this to heart and failed to supervise or assist in his own reelection, which had the effect of creating a disjointed and occasionally distasteful campaign. Jackson, for his part, was actively involved in the organization of his campaign, although he himself did not personally solicit votes. Jackson won in an absolute landslide and as a consequence of the vicious campaign, did not visit or consult Adams in the period between the election and his inauguration (as was and remains customary). Adams did not attend Jackson's inauguration. Interestingly, Adams made something of a political comeback in 1830 by being elected to the House of Representatives. He was much happier and more successful in this endeavor, eventually being elected to eight terms as a Representative. He became the most outspoken anti-slavery voice in the U.S. Congress at a time when discussion of the problem was considered socially unacceptable and politically incorrect and brokered a compromise to end the nullification controversy that seemed almost certain to plunge the country into civil war.

The enthusiasm and euphoria that carried Jackson to reelection in 1832 allowed his hand-picked successor, Vice President Martin van Buren to win in 1836 by a comfortable margin. Van Buren was a great political operator, but poorly suited to the Presidency. While he essentially created what we consider the modern Democratic Party out of a core group of Jackson's followers, he was not a particularly engaging person. English was his second language (Dutch was his first) and he did not really master it until his college years, causing him to be something of a poor public speaker. Van Buren was elected mainly on the premise that he would continue Jackson's policies to the letter. Unfortunately for van Buren, the policy that Jackson considered his greatest political triumph -- causing the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States -- became an albatross around his neck almost immediately after taking office. The Bank had allowed the government to conduct its economic affairs on its own, issuing currency and the like. It was, however, extra-constitutional and not particularly efficient. Jackson hated the Bank due to a series of minor scandals and vetoed an extension of its original charter. While this in and of itself didn't cause a problem, the financial and public reaction was a disaster for van Buren.

After the fall of the Bank, other institutions began to fear inflation, so many banks and lending houses would only accept payment in the form of hard currency (i.e. gold and silver). This caused a period of deflation which ultimately led to almost half of all private and state banks in the United States failing. A depression and a period of record unemployment ensued which lasted for the duration of van Buren's presidency. While he himself did not cause the problem, neither was he able to alleviate it. His foreign policy was inconsistent, rejecting Texas' entrance into the Union on the grounds that it would expand slavery and upset the political balance of the legislature but went to war in Florida again in what was deemed an attempt to benefit slave-owning Southern allies in the Democratic Party. A staunch moral opponent of slavery, van Buren was neither able nor politically willing to do anything about it. He viewed it as neither his responsibility nor his right to sway opinion on the contentious issue through his office.

It's very rare that "anybody but X" campaigns are successful, but the election of 1840 represented one of the few times the strategy worked. The hegemony that Jefferson's party had enjoyed electorally from 1800 to 1836 was over. The Whig Party was formed as a reaction to Jackson's heavy-handedness and made some gains in Congress. In 1840, they fielded a hero from the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, as their Presidential candidate. The Whigs were the first "big tent" party in American politics, compiling together groups of people who had very little in common ideologically except for opposition to this or that issue. Part of Harrison's success was the fact that he broke with tradition and personally campaigned for the Presidency rather than just allowing other people to do it for him. This played well in the South and the expanding West where people responded to his almost folksy and down-to-earth manner. He was popular in the North as well, since the Democratic Party created by Jackson and van Buren was based primarily on a Southern core. Harrison comfortably beat van Buren in both the popular and electoral vote. Ironically, he died of pneumonia a month after taking office, earning him the dubious distinction of being the first President to die in office and for having the shortest administration of any President (30 days).

For the next 48 years, no incumbent President who received his party's nomination and who ran in the general election was not reelected. While there were several single-term presidents in the intervening period, they either all died in office or were not renominated by their parties. In the election of 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland won an extremely close election thanks largely to the scandal-engulfed campaign of Republican James G. Blaine. The distaste that many Republicans had for Blaine caused them to defect in droves to Cleveland, leading them to be derisively called Mugwumps (an Algonquian term that implies self-righteousness). While socially moderate, Cleveland was very much a fiscal conservative. He believed in free trade and backed a bill to reduce tariffs on imports. This had not really been an issue during the 1884 campaign and why he made it one during his administration is a mystery. Realistically, lowering the tariff would not have done much to the American economy at that time since imports were received chiefly from Europe and were generally more expensive than equivalent American products. However, making it an issue allowed his opponents to claim that he was selling out American industry to big business. This alienated some of his Southern and Western voters, who were already turning against him due to his opposition to free silver. Free silver was a movement designed to allow debts to be paid in silver coins rather than gold bullion. While this seems all well and good, the salient fact is that silver has always been and will likely always be worth less than gold. People who held U.S. bonds generally were only willing to accept payment in gold, so a massive influx of silver into the treasury accompanied by a similarly massive exodus of gold would have an inflationary effect. There was a broad consensus among both Republicans and Democrats that free silver would cause economic ruin and no serious efforts were ever made to enact it. At the local level, however, free silver was a prominent trope of the Democratic Party, so it's possible that Cleveland's stance against it reduced turnout for him in the West in 1888.

The election that year pitted Cleveland against Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the short-lived President William Henry Harrison. The campaign centered almost entirely around the issue that need not have been one, namely tariffs. Harrison's campaign was able to convince voters that reducing the tariff would almost certainly cause both agricultural and industrial workers to lose their jobs. A minor scandal emerged when a California Republican posed as a former British citizen and sent a letter to the British ambassador to the U.S. asking who he thought he should vote for. Stupidly, the ambassador said that Cleveland would be more helpful to British interests. The letter was widely publicized and seemed to vindicate the notion that Cleveland's economic policies were favorable only to foreigners. Cleveland managed to lose the Irish vote in New York that he worked so hard to attain in the previous election. This was compounded by the fact that he had made an enemy of Tammany Hall in the state, which allowed Harrison to win New York, and indeed most of the northeast. While Cleveland actually won the popular vote by a small margin, it was an electoral landslide in Harrison's favor.

Harrison was in many ways the anti-Cleveland. He increased tariffs to their highest rates yet and spent large sums of money on infrastructural improvements and social services. He and the Republican-controlled Congress became the first in history to spend more than one billion dollars, at that time an almost astronomical sum for a government. He also threw a bone to the free silver crowd, allowing the coinage of silver with the caveat that it would be pegged to its actual exchange rate rather than to a certain percentage of an equal weight of gold. Essentially, the government would buy the silver and then give treasury notes that could be redeemed for either gold or silver. Obviously, everyone opted to redeem them for gold, which had the dreaded (but entirely foreseen) effect of causing a run on gold. Similarly, the surplus left by Cleveland had been evaporated by Harrison and consumers were now unable to import overseas items because of their prohibitively expensive cost, which severely damaged trade.

Interestingly, the election of 1892 pitted Harrison against Cleveland again. Cleveland's economic policies were vindicated and he won both the popular and electoral votes by a wide margin. Grover Cleveland has the interesting distinction of being the first and so far only U.S. President to serve two nonconsecutive terms, although since he was not an incumbent in this election, he's still considered a "one-term" President. Legally, he was both the 22nd and the 24th President.

The country hummed along politically for 20 years until the election of 1912. The incumbent President, William Howard Taft, had been the handpicked successor of Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most active and activist President in U.S. history. While Taft and Roosevelt were personally close, they grew to become ideological opposites. Taft represented the establishment Republican Party, socially and financially conservative and opposed to unrestricted free trade. Roosevelt was the leader of the Progressive wing, more interested in protecting workers than businesses and in favor of reducing tariffs on imported goods. A rift developed to the extent that Roosevelt decided to run against his friend in the Republican primaries. While Roosevelt performed well in the elections, Taft had already secured the support of the unelected delegates to the convention. Eventually, Roosevelt and his group gave up and he decided to run in the election anyway as the candidate for his new Progressive Party.

Amidst all of this, the Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, the former governor of New Jersey. From that point forward, the election was really a contest between Roosevelt and Wilson, the outcome of which should have been immediately obvious. Roosevelt's candidacy split the Republican vote and allowed Wilson to win with a meager 41% of the popular vote but with one of the largest electoral victories in history (455 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's 8). Taft didn't really do anything "wrong" during his term as President, he just had the misfortune of getting in the way of the ambitions of Theodore Roosevelt. While Roosevelt undoubtedly wanted to be President again, he more than anything wanted to humiliate Taft. He accomplished this as Taft received the smallest number of electoral votes ever awarded a sitting President. Had the Republicans presented a united campaign in 1912, they almost certainly would have won: between the two of them, Roosevelt and Taft had over 50% of the electoral vote. While it's unclear exactly what proportion of the vote Roosevelt took from Wilson, it's a safe bet that the majority of his support conflicted with Taft.

By 1932, the United States had arrived on the world stage as both an economic and military great power. The sitting President at this time was the Republican Herbert Hoover. Hoover had distinguished himself as the Secretary of Commerce under his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge. The 1920s were a great time for the Republican Party -- they won all three elections in that decade, led by Warren G. Harding's 1920 campaign pledge for "a return to normalcy" after the turbulence of the Wilson administration. While the Harding administration was hopelessly corrupt, and he died less than halfway into his term, his shrewd and calculating Vice President Coolidge led the country to a period of prosperity so great that the era is forever known as "the Roaring Twenties." Hoover's election was remarkable because it represented the first real in-roads that the Republican Party made in what was formerly known as the Democratic "Solid South."

Philosophically, Hoover was an extremely compassionate person. He organized massive famine relief for Russia after World War I, a controversial stand given the nature of the Bolshevik Revolution, but he saw it as a moral imperative to not allow innocents to starve. Although many people point to the stock market crash of 1929 -- occurring only a few months after Hoover's inauguration -- as the beginning of the Great Depression, there wasn't really a direct causal relationship between the two events. What can be said, however, is that Hoover's reaction to the 1929 crash didn't help any. The problem that Hoover had was that although he was widely renowned as a great humanitarian and philanthropist, it was his belief that it was not the government's right to engage in extreme relief efforts. He promoted a worldview based on patriotic civic duty and private charity. Unfortunately for both Hoover and the nation, this belief was not shared by a great many people. Personal fortunes were entirely lost in the space of just a couple of days, and many companies were ruined overnight. Hoover became convinced of the necessity for the government to take some type of action, but was unwilling to directly stimulate the economy with deficit spending. In response, Hoover raised tariffs and raised taxes, but these actions had the opposite of the intended effects: other countries began enacting protectionist policies, which stifled American exports, and the tax revenue essentially removed more money from the private economy that led to greater economic struggling.

By the time the election of 1932 rolled around, a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. The Democrats nominated former New York governor Franklin Roosevelt to run against Hoover. Roosevelt ran an aggressive campaign that laid responsibility for the Depression at Hoover's door while Hoover played defense the whole time. In the end, Hoover only won six reliably Republican states and lost the groundbreaking gains that he had made in the South in the previous election. Also of note is that the 1932 election was the first time a Republican Presidential candidate lost the Black vote -- no Republican candidate has won it since that time.

Between 1936 and 1976, every incumbent President who ran for reelection was successful. While much is made of the turbulent Zeitgeist of the 1960s, the 1970s were perhaps more significant. The country had grown stern in the face of the excesses of the youth movement of the decade and Americans were desperate for stability and civil security. The former Republican Vice President Richard Nixon -- his party's unsuccessful candidate in the 1960 election -- capitalized on the repressed conservatism of the demographic he referred to as "the great silent majority." His pledges to bring some type of pride and sense of control back to America allowed him to comfortably coast through two elections, including the 1972 contest in which he won by the largest numerical margin in history (over 18 million votes separated him from his opponent). He was also the first Republican to completely break the Democrats' political control of the South, winning every Southern state -- indeed, he won every state except for Massachusetts. Less than two years later, Nixon would resign in scandal and be succeeded by his Vice President Gerald Ford.

Gerald Ford had spent almost the entirety of his political career up to that point as a leading member of the House of Representatives. After Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in disgrace after his reelection, he tapped Ford to take Agnew's spot. When Nixon in turned resigned, Ford succeeded him, having the unusual distinction of being the only President to have not been elected to either that position or the Vice Presidency. While Ford enjoyed fair public support after initially taking office, he was immediately in the doghouse for his full and unconditional pardon of Nixon about a month after his inauguration. Contemporary and modern observers -- including Gerald Ford -- agree that this decision was probably the one that would ultimately spell his doom in the 1976 campaign.

Ford had no major policy blunders to speak of, allowing foreign policy to continue to be deftly managed by Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and pursuing a generally fiscally conservative approach to the economy. The Democrats nominated Georgia governor Jimmy Carter to be their candidate in the 1976 election, but surprisingly, Ford's own renomination was not a foregone conclusion. He faced a stiff primary challenge from a former actor and California governor named Ronald Reagan. Reagan at one point offered Ford the chance to be his running mate in the election if he would stand aside. Unimpressed, Ford declined the generous offer and eventually prevailed in capturing the Republican nomination. At first, Carter was well ahead of Ford, but opinion polls became significantly tighter until they were declared to be a statistical tie shortly before the election.

While Ford's policies were not necessarily controversial, there was a widespread perception of his being both physically and intellectually clumsy. He prominently stumbled while walking on a few taped occasions and made a bizarre statement in a debate with Carter in which he declared that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." While he later attempted to clarify the remarks, the comment seemed entirely divorced from reality and reinforced the perception that Ford hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Still, the election was close, and Carter beat Ford by less than 2 percentage points. Ford, ultimately, had the misfortune of being considered an "insider" when he was clearly not in an election that was geared toward an "outsider" from the start.

Jimmy Carter's election was a period of great elation and optimism. He had won with the backing of an unusual coalition of Blacks, Southerners, liberals, and evangelicals. While this was all well and good, the honeymoon was quickly over. Carter inherited something of a recession from the Ford administration and this soon spiraled into a more serious problem that was compounded by stiff inflation, a dual phenomenon known as stagflation. The events of 1979 would prove to be his administration's undoing. First, in the summer of that year, OPEC increased prices for crude oil by about 100%. To stymie this, Carter reintroduced price controls on oil, which inevitably led to severe energy shortages and made the stagflation issue even worse. He gave a speech widely referred to as the "malaise" speech, although the word appears nowhere in the text. The point of the speech was to call for energy conservation, but the point that really stuck out was Carter's insistence that Americans were suffering from a "crisis of confidence" in themselves, their country, and their elected representatives. While perhaps true, it did little to help the crisis of confidence.

Carter suffered two major foreign policy disasters shortly after this. Aside from Israel, the United States' chief ally in the Middle East at this time was Iran. The authoritarian regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi was a stabilizing factor but wildly unpopular domestically. Spurred on by the words of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revolution broke out against the Shah. Fueled by decades of popular resentment and fundamentalist Islam, the revolution forced the Shah from power and into exile in the United States. Since the U.S. was perceived as harboring the Shah, a group of revolutionary students seized the American embassy in Tehran and held the occupants there hostage. The Iran Hostage Crisis was damaging enough, but the administration's failed attempt at a rescue the following year made Carter seem completely incapable of handling the situation.

The other disaster occurred less than two months after the attack on the embassy. At first, Carter largely continued the Nixon administration's détente policy toward the Soviet Union. The culmination of this was the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the countries. While hailed as a victory domestically, the Soviets were convinced that it meant the United States had neither the stomach nor the capability to stop them from doing what they wanted to do. To that end, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up the pro-Soviet government that was under fire from anti-communist forces. While it was known that there was a possibility of this happening, it was deemed highly unlikely. Allegedly, the eventuality had been foreseen some months earlier by the administration, but the public regarded it as a severe miscalculation on Carter's part. It discredited the détente concept and provided more ammunition against Carter.

For the 1980 election, the Republicans nominated Reagan after his bitter struggle with George Bush, the head of the CIA, the first American ambassador to communist China, and the former head of the Republican National Committee. Like Ford before him, Carter suffered a primary challenge of his own before he could begin his reelection bid. This time, the star-power of the Kennedy name came back in force, with Massachusetts Senator (and brother of former President John F. Kennedy) Edward Kennedy seeking to unseat Carter. While the contest was due primarily to Kennedy's personal ambition for the Presidency, it also revealed deep cracks in the Democratic Party. The coalition that had elected Carter had long since evaporated and neither the Democratic base nor the Party's left wing were particularly interested in or happy with Carter. The evangelical Christians who supported the pious Carter by a wide margin in 1976 now threw their support behind Reagan.

Carter and Reagan ran completely different campaigns. While Carter was forced to defend his record and ask for a chance to make things better, Reagan was able to emphasize the administration's shortcomings and promise an administration of optimism and confidence. Carter was further hurt by the appearance of a third party candidate, Representative John Anderson, who seemed to syphon votes away from him. During the debates, Reagan easily shrugged off Carter's criticisms of his record and questions about his ideas and created the new standard metric for Presidential performance when he asked "are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Reagan won the election with wide popular and electoral margins. As a final insult to Carter, on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, Iran released the hostages being held at the American embassy in that country.

The 1980s were much like the 1920s for the Republicans in that the party won all three Presidential elections that decade and the economy began an upward trajectory. Reagan's Vice President, George H.W. Bush was elected to his own term in 1988. Amazingly, Bush became the first sitting Vice President to be elected to the Presidency since Martin van Buren's successful run in 1836. Under the Bush administration, the vast majority of Reagan's foreign policies were vindicated, especially his political confrontation of the Soviet Union. Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed on Bush's watch and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated in 1991. East and West Germany were reunited the same year. Bush defended American interests abroad first by efficiently removing Manuel Noriega from power in Panama in 1989 and then arresting and convicting him for racketeering and drug trafficking the following year. His greatest international achievement, however, was the Gulf War. In 1990, Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and attempted to annex the small, oil-rich nation. Bush assembled the largest coalition of nations ever -- including both NATO and Warsaw Pact signatories -- to militarily remove the Iraqis from the country. The war was concluded in less than a year with minimal coalition casualties and the objective of removing Iraq from Kuwait achieved.

In 1991, Bush was in an unassailable position politically. His approval rating routinely registered above 90%. For all of his amazing foreign policy successes, however, Bush had a slight problem with a campaign pledge he had made in 1988. Bush famously implored voters to read his lips: no new taxes. Toward the end of 1991 and into 1992, the economy was experiencing something of a downward turn. Bush was hamstrung by an uncooperative Congress and was eventually forced to break his promise and sign new taxes into law. Questions also began to emerge about his handling of the Gulf War, or more particularly, the fact that Saddam had been allowed to remain in power at its conclusion.

While several big name Democrats had removed themselves from consideration for the 1992 election (seeing Bush's reelection as inevitable and a campaign not worth the risk), the moderate governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, eventually emerged as the nominee after an initially tough series of primaries. Speaking of tough primaries, Bush was shocked when he faced a surprisingly strong primary challenge from pundit and former Nixon/Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan. Buchanan represented the high arch-conservative wing of the Republican Party, considering Bush too much of an internationalist with too little respect for American industry, especially viewed through the prism of the NAFTA initiative that Bush had begun to champion. Bush responded in force, moving more to the right in speeches and eventually securing renomination. He gave Buchanan a prime spot at the Republican National Convention where the author coined the term "culture war" in a rousing speech.

While Bush usually led Clinton in the polls, a more significant challenge arose when billionaire entrepreneur Ross Perot entered the race as the candidate of the Reform Party. Bush at first didn't see much harm in Perot's candidacy since internal polling seemed to indicate that he took more votes from Clinton than Bush. Indeed, Perot's repeated vacillations about being in the race and dropping out the race hurt his numbers to the extent that he seemed not to be a threat to anyone but himself. As time went on, it became clear that although Perot could not win the election, he could definitely hurt Bush's campaign. While the Bush campaign sought to emphasize the contrast between Bush's achievements and Clinton's perceived lack of character, the main factor affecting the mood of the race was succinctly summed up by famed Clinton operative James Carville when he said "it's the economy, stupid." Clinton would go on to win the election by a significant popular and electoral margin. It's difficult to know whether or not Bush would have been reelected without Perot's presence, but he certainly didn't make things any easier for him. For Clinton's part, the electoral honeymoon with his party did not extend beyond the first half of his first term when the Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections and held on to them until 2006.

What does all of this mean?

I've tried to describe these 10 elections in a relatively fair and even-handed manner. Just by looking at certain trends, I've identified a few common features that generally seem to spell electoral failure for an incumbent candidate.

First, economic issues more than anything else seem to play the single biggest determining factor in figuring out an incumbent's chance for reelection. Bush, Carter, Hoover, Harrison, Cleveland, and van Buren all lost either because of a poor economy or questions about economic philosophy. Ford could also possibly be lumped into this category, although the recession was not the biggest influence on his loss. The reason why this is such an important factor is obvious: most people feel politics and policy in their wallets more than anywhere else. While we can endlessly debate the extent of the President's influence on the economy (and indeed how quickly the country's economy can react to this or that particular policy) the fact remains that voters want to punish someone when times are tough, and that person usually turns out to be the same one who won an election promising to fix the problem or improve the situation.

Another reasonably good predictor of electoral failure is the presentation of a serious primary challenger. Bush, Carter, Ford, Hoover, Taft, and Adams pére et fils had to deal with significant internal party discontent before mounting their reelection campaigns. It is considered a political truism that the base does not determine the general election, but I strongly disagree. Generally speaking, primary voters are the most dedicated partisans of all. They are the base. Now, if candidates are nominated during primaries and the base disproportionately votes during primaries, does it not stand to reason that the candidates in the general election are chosen largely by the base? Enthusiasm for a candidate at the base level is an amazing predictor of success or failure. In 2008, 2004, 1996, and 1984, the losing party nominated a candidate who was seen as a safe bet and who stood the highest chance of being "electable." There was little grassroots excitement over John Kerry, Bob Dole, or Walter Mondale, and this lack of interest carried over into the general election. When an incumbent faces a problem with his base, he's in trouble because it represents a lack of confidence in his abilities and many voters take it as an invitation to stay home on election day. If you can't get your most die-hard loyalists excited about you, what chance do you have of exciting the general public? (As a brief note, the United States was essentially a one-party state during the early 19th century, and primaries did not exist as such at that time. John Adams and John Quincy Adams were more the victims of internal dissent rather than actual primary challenges.)

One really strange trend I've also noticed is that incumbent failure seems to have a certain correlation to a direct political predecessor's electoral success. Bush, Ford, Hoover, Taft, van Buren, and both Adamses all followed popular and successful Presidents of the same party who were either elected to two full terms or who served more than one full term in office. Interestingly, while their policies were broadly similar, their personalities were not. For example, Bush was more of a bureaucrat while Reagan was more of a cowboy. Ford was an awkward consensus-builder while Nixon was a calculating pharaoh. Taft was quiet and bookish and Roosevelt was loud and outgoing. I at first thought this was likely coincidental, but there's far more precedent for success followed by failure than for success followed by success. The only instance so far of three two-term presidents from the same party occurring in sequence ran from 1801 to 1825 (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) and the dominance of the Democratic Republicans ended with John Quincy Adams' succession of James Monroe and the formation of the Democratic Party. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations (1933 to 1953) are similar instances of electoral success, but this is due primarily to FDR's election to four terms. Hoover and Taft came at the end of two other "dynasties," their direct predecessors having been, respectively, Calvin Coolidge (1923 to 1929) and Warren Harding (1921 to 1923); and Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and William McKinley (1897-1901; assassinated less than a year into his second term). If I had to find a reason for this, I would say that it could be due to political fatigue on the part of the electorate. More cynically, it's possible that while eight years might not be a long enough period of time for the consequences of an administration's policies to fully reveal themselves, twelve years seems perfectly sufficient and it would be natural to blame the successor for the predecessor's actions. The economic downturn during van Buren's administration was almost 100% directly related to Andrew Jackson's policies and the stock market crash of 1929 that occurred during Hoover's administration had its roots in the speculative bubble that developed during the Coolidge years.

The final point I'll make is that all of these failed incumbents campaigned on the defensive. The instant they lost the initiative, their bids were dead. The absolute worst thing a candidate can try to do is defend, explain, or "clarify" a statement, action, or policy that has somehow become an issue in the campaign. It's sort of like having to explain a joke to someone: the second that you do that, it stops being funny, if indeed it was funny in the first place. Having to explain a comment like "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" or defend the reasoning behind a policy of lowering tariffs at the possible expense of American businesses removes any sense of profundity or wisdom that may have existed in the idea in the beginning. An electorally successful candidate is the one who is always attacking, always on the offensive, and always driving momentum. Now, that being said, most of these men were running on poor economic records and voters prefer results to intentions. This is one reason why President Obama's trope that the recession would have been "much worse" without the spending levels over the last couple of years doesn't really help his case since that's completely unknowable and unproveable.

I think when you see the convergence of these factors in any race featuring an incumbent President (or governor, for that matter), it's a safe assumption that he or she won't wind up doing too well. I won't make any real predictions about next year's election since there are way too many unknown factors and too much time left to place a meaningful bet. For the sake of my own vanity, though, I hope that the events prove me right either way!

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