The Incumbents Who Beat The Odds – And Lost

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You are President Barack Obama and you are worried.

With three months to go until the November general election, most national polls find you in a statistical dead heat with the soon-to-be-anointed Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a candidate who possesses a huge campaign checkbook and a chameleon like ability to calibrate his stances on big issues. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the national economy is performing like Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett in a pennant race, which is to say not very well. In short, you are in trouble. Lots of trouble.

But does this necessarily mean you will be on the losing end in the upcoming presidential sweepstakes? To answer this, you need to take a close look at presidential history. Going back to 1900, there have been only five presidential incumbents who have lost their bids for reelection:

William Howard Taft (R-1912)
The handpicked successor of Theodore Roosevelt, the conservative Ohio native was the unfortunate victim of his predecessor’s driving ambition and political vanity. Unhappy in retirement, T.R. sought to regain the presidency by directly challenging his old protégé for the GOP nomination. Although his comeback bid fell short, Roosevelt and his fellow progressives formed a new party —the Progressive Party — which conveniently nominated him as its presidential standard-bearer. This Republican split ended up greatly aiding the Democratic candidate, the relatively unknown Woodrow Wilson. In the epic three-way presidential battle that followed, Wilson emerged as the winner with only 41.9 percent of the popular vote. T.R. finished second with 27 percent, while Taft came in third with a pitiable 23 percent. It takes no mathematical genius to realize that if you add the Roosevelt and Taft totals together, the Republicans would have emerged as the decisive victors that year. Alas, T.R. had other plans.

Herbert Hoover (R-1932)
Hoover had the misfortune of being president when the stock market crashed in October 1929, ushering in the Great Depression. At its peak, a quarter of the nation’s workforce was out of work, with tens of thousands of businesses failing. Hoover did not help himself by stubbornly refusing to allow the federal government to provide direct economic relief to the millions of Americans who were facing growing unemployment, homelessness and hunger. Instead, he left it up to a host of private charities and local governments to fill the void. It thus came as no surprise that upstart Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and his promise of a “New Deal” of comprehensive economic and political reform stumped Hoover in the general election.

Gerald R. Ford (R-1976)
Ford’s presidency appeared doomed from the start. To move beyond the long shadow cast by his disgraced predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, Ford thought it prudent to pardon Nixon after the Watergate scandal. Big mistake. Accused of cynically taking care of an old political friend, Ford became politically vulnerable, too weak to fend off Democrat Jimmy Carter. That former nuclear engineer turned peanut farmer promised voters that he would never lie to them, a thinly veiled indictment of Ford’s supposed backroom deal-making. “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln,” Ford had once famously quipped. Americans going to the polls that November obviously agreed.

Jimmy Carter (D-1980)
It seemed as if everything that could go wrong for the Democrat did. Unemployment soared and the inflation rate reached double-digit highs, leaving the domestic economy in its worst shape since Hoover. If this weren’t bad enough, the hostage crisis in Tehran triggered a humiliating international situation that was not resolved until the waning moments of Carter’s administration – well after the election. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy decided to challenge Carter but could not prevent his renomination. Kennedy’s candidacy weakened Carter politically, however, making him easy pickings for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

George H.W. Bush (R-1992)
Bush seemed liked a lead-pipe cinch to win a second term in the White House, but an underperforming domestic economy late in his term, combined with a damaging third-party challenge from colorful Texas billionaire Ross Perot, spelled political doom for Bush. A former Rhodes scholar from Arkansas who had admitted to smoking dope and avoiding military service in the Vietnam War was the main beneficiary. Bill Clinton became the 42nd president of the United States and delivered two terms of relative peace and prosperity.

So back to the original question. If you are President Obama, how worried should you be? If history is any guide, the answer does not seem very reassuring. In most of these cases, a bad economy played a prominent role in an incumbent’s defeat.

While the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can take scant comfort in this conclusion, he should feel reasonably satisfied that his political situation could be appreciably worse. He does not have to contend with a split Democratic party or a third-party challenger siphoning off critical votes. If anything, that danger lies in Romney’s camp, as he struggles to secure his fractured Republican base while crossing his fingers that Texas congressman Ron Paul does not bolt from the GOP and take his fellow Libertarians with him.

Add it up, and what does it all mean? It means that President Obama still has a fighting chance to return to the White House for another four years. At this stage in the political game, given all the recent poor economic news, that’s perhaps more than he can ask for. Or more than he deserves.

This program aired on August 8, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.