Trump 2020: Do US Presidents Win Re-election?

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Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States and will soon inhabit the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR. For those deeply concerned by his win, myself included, one question (and hope) is whether he will be a one term President and be gone in 2020, in the next presidential election 1,455 days from now.

Whatever they claim, all conventional political leaders think about re-election constantly. When Trump enters the White House in January 2017 they’ll instantly be thinking about winning again in 2020 and all their thinking will be geared towards that. ‘Every day’ as Barack Obama said ‘is election day’. But what are the chances of 45, as he’ll be known, being re-elected in four years?

Post War Presidents and Their Second Terms

President Did They Win A Second Term? Why No Second Term?
Harry s. Truman No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Dwight Eisenhower Yes
John F Kennedy No Assassinated
Lyndon Baines Johnson

 

No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Richard Nixon Yes
Gerald Ford No Lost
Jimmy Carter No Lost
Ronald Reagan Yes
George Bush No Lost
Bill Clinton Yes
George W Bush Yes
Barack Obama Yes

 

Looking at this table of all the Presidents since the Twenty-Second Amendment of 1947 (the constitutional change that placed a two term limit on incumbents) six presidents were re-elected and six were not. It appears that there are exactly equal chances, a 50/50 possibility, of Trump winning again or losing office in 2020.

So is there really an equal chance of staying or going? Digging into the details, it’s a little more complex and uncertain. Three Presidents outright lost their re-election bids: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush Snr in 1992, felled by, respectively, a better opponent, an October surprise and their lack of the ‘vision thing’. All seemed to have been terminally disrupted in one way or another.

Not all of those who didn’t run were defeated in elections. John F. Kennedy never ran for re-election because he was assassinated. It’s not clear if Kennedy would have won in 1964 but, against Barry Goldwater, it would have been very likely. Meanwhile Harry Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 opted not to run. Although it is almost certain both would have lost if they ran, LBJ’s Vice President came within an ace of beating Nixon in 1968. In 1976 incumbent Gerald Ford, despite being the second least popular President in history after pardoning Nixon for Watergate, nearly won in 1976, losing 48% against 50%. Nor does winning two terms guarantee greatness-some polls of post-war Presidents give quite a mixed picture.

Cutting the table a different way, winning seems to be the pattern for the holder of the office in the last few decades. Recent history seems to show a stronger incumbency factor-the last three presidents since Bill Clinton all served two terms and, going back to Ronald Reagan, the last four out of five won re-election, with Bush Snr the odd one out in 1992.

Why is there this apparent incumbency advantage or a challenger disadvantage? The incumbent has got the experience of running and winning a Presidential campaign. If you are already in the office it brings all sorts of resources, from having a proven record, to the ability to get things and guaranteed media attention. Being President should also (normally) mean not having to fight a gruelling, divisive money and energy sapping primary like your opponent will. So once you are in the White House, you are more likely to stay than go.

The real danger is the next four years. The few checks and balances in the US system at present appear weaker than normal. The House and Senate is Republican and the Supreme Court has one vacancy and two elderly judges, so less hope in the seemingly endless gridlock of US politics. More worrying is that Trump, for all his conciliatory acceptance speech, is no believer in democracy, freedom of speech or individual rights. Much of what he has said repeatedly undermined the democratic process and he was, as David Remnick put it, ‘elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment’. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, while this may not be fascism the ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’  that Trump’s victory heralds was the breeding ground for it. The victorious anti-democratic Trump has much opportunity and everything now hangs, at least for the next two years, on Republican party factionalism and how much gridlock remains in the system .

That is, of course, unless something blows Trump off course: a scandal, a crisis or an obstacle. Such unexpected events have disrupted many presidential careers and roundly defeated Ford, Carter and Bush. And American politics today seems to thrive on the unexpected.