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April 17, 2013 11:28 AM Three Straight Presidential Reelections Is a Weak Trend

By Jonathan Bernstein

After Hoover was defeated in 1932, the next incumbent to lose in a general election was Ford, in 1976, followed in short order by Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992. Add in Johnson in 1968, and incumbents are beaten all the time!

But now, with a run of three presidents who were successfully re-elected, get ready for it: you’re going to be hearing a lot about how incumbent presidents can’t lose under today’s conditions. Here’s a preview from Tom Edsall, who attributes this effect to campaign finance:

The ability of an unchallenged incumbent president to flood the airwaves during the summer of an election year, combined with the advantage an incumbent has raising general election money a full two years or more before the election, has significant consequences. Early money is crucial to the long-haul development and testing of high-tech voter contact research techniques. An incumbent’s built-in edge over out-party challengers, who must first spend millions to win the nomination, is now so strong that it almost guarantees two-term presidents.

This, along with some stuff about how economic conditions in 2012 should have made for an easy Republican victory — which ignores both the evidence of the political science modelers and the common sense intuition that maybe voters remembered when the crash happened.

Now, as it happens, incumbents do win often — not just for re-election to the White House, but for all offices at all times. After all, the one thing we know about incumbents is that they won! Usually, with basically the same electorate, or at least close to the same electorate, that they are facing in the next election. Forget about everything else, and just focus on that, and you’ll expect them to win the next time. Indeed, there’s really something wrong if they don’t win more often than they lose; it would indicate to voters are constantly changing their minds, and that’s not a positive sign.

I do think that the expectation to the contrary is based on a good government fantasy that every election should begin — for every voter — from square one, with voters carefully studying the positions on public policy issues from each candidate from scratch and deciding their vote based on an impartial calculus of exactly which candidate is best on those issues. Which is neither what happens in the real world or, I’d argue, would be any better than what actually does happen in the real world. (Worse? Well, I’m open to and willing to defend most methods for determining one’s vote, but it wouldn’t be a way I’d recommend).

I may say more later about the campaign finance specific stuff in Edsall’s post, but look: this is coming. You get three straight re-elections, and people are going to believe that it’s inevitable, and throw their favorite causes at this supposed effect. But it isn’t inevitable. It’s just worked out that way.

[Cross-posted at A Plain Blog about Politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.