How Do You Defeat An Incumbent President?

The odds are against anyone who challenges an incumbent President. So, how do you do it?

It’s not easy to defeat in an incumbent President. Even in the 19th Century, which is replete with one-term Presidencies, there were only five occasions on which an incumbent President was defeated in a General Election bid for re-election (1800, 1828, 1840, 1888, and 1892 — in most cases the 19th century one term Presidents failed to even get the nomination of their party, or declined to do so). In the 20th Century it also only happened five times (1912, 1932, 1976, 1980, and 1992) and two of those cases (1912 and 1992) are races in which the incumbent was dealing with multiple challengers on the General Election ballot. That’s ten elections in 200-odd years in which an incumbent was unseated, this stands in contrast to sixteen occasions (not counting Washington in 1792) in which an incumbent was reelected. This means that, since Jefferson’s re-election in 1804, an incumbent has been re-elected 61% of the time they have stood for re-election (if you throw in Washington’s re-election, the odds increase to 62.96%). Clearly then, the odds are that if a President decides to run for re-election he is going to be re-elected absent some kind of extraordinary circumstances, which leads to the question of exactly how a challenger and their party should approach the task of beating an incumbent.

Like many conservatives, Thomas Sowell seems to think that one does so by drawing stark ideological contrasts with the incumbent:

How does anyone ever defeat a sitting president then? They do it because they have a message that rings and resonates. The last Republican to defeat a sitting president was Ronald Reagan. He was the only Republican to do so in the 20th century.

He didn’t do it with polls. At one point during the election campaign, President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan with 58 percent to 40 percent in the polls. So much for the polls that so many are relying on so heavily today.

The question is not which Republican looks better against Barack Obama in the polls today, before the general election campaign begins. The question is which Republican can take the fight to Barack Obama, as Reagan took the fight to Carter, and win the poll that ultimately matters, the vote on election day.

The biggest fighting issue for Republicans is ObamaCare. Can the author of RomneyCare as governor of Massachusetts make that an effective issue by splitting hairs over state versus federal mandates? Can a man who has been defensive about his own wealth fight off the standard class warfare of Barack Obama, who can push all the demagogic buttons against Mitt Romney as one of the one-percenters?

Rick Santorum, and especially Newt Gingrich, are fighters — and this election is going to be a fight to the finish, with the fate of this country in the balance.

Let’s leave aside the hyperbole, because as I’ve addressed before the idea that this election is one in which the “the fate of the country” hangs in the balance, or that the results in November would represent some massive ideological shift in the direction of the nation isn’t really supported by the facts. Yes, we’ve had those kind of elections in this past but, many times, what seems like a “change” election usually just ends up being more of the same. What really strikes me about Sowell’s column, though, or at least this portion of it, is the way that it clearly seems to be viewing history through a political lens, thereby distorting it and drawing the wrong conclusions.

As I noted above,  the odds of defeating an incumbent are low to begin with. For example, Sowell’s observation that Reagan was the only Republican to defeat a Democratic President in the 20th Century is largely meaningless. For one thing, other than the Election of 1916 and perhaps 1948, the election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter was the only realistic chance Republicans had to defeat a Democratic incumbent in the entire 20th Century. Republicans never had a realistic shot of beating FDR they blew their chance to beat LBJ by nominating Goldwater, and that’s it. Wilson, Truman, and Carter, those were the only Democrats that could have been unseated in 100 years and the GOP went 1-for-3, which isn’t all that bad actually.

The bigger problem, though, is that Sowell makes the same mistake that many on the right do when they look back at the 1980 election and conclude that the reason Ronald Reagan won was because he campaigned as a “true conservative,” whatever that means. In reality, it’s pretty clear that 1980 falls into the same pattern that the other 20th century races that unseated an incumbent have fallen into. Each of these five elections, I would argue, can be put into one of two categories:1

  1. Elections in which there was some extraordinary political event in play. In 1916 and 1992, that would have been the presence of more than one serious challenger on the ballot (In 1916, in fact, Wiliam Howard Taft came in third in both popular and electoral votes behind Willson and Teddy Roosevelt). In 1976, the incumbent President was a man who had never been elected as either President or Vice-President and took office after what was arguably the most serious political crisis in the nation’s history (even so, Ford nearly won that election); and,
  2. Elections in which the economy is in extraordinarily bad shape This applies both to 1932, at which point the Great Depression was entering its worst phase, and 1980, when the nation was suffering through a combination of economic stagnation, high interest rates, high unemployment, and inflation. Arguably, 1992 would also fit into this category, although the economic situation in that year was nowhere near as severe as it had been in either of the other two cases.

Based on these elections, the most likely conditions under which a President is defeated would be where there is something extraordinary going on politically, such as a strong third party candidate, or the economic situation is in such dire straits that the public is in the mood to fire the incumbent. If the economy in 1980 had been completely different, and taking the international situation that existed that year off the table as well, does anyone really think that the Republicans would have been able to defeat Carter so easily? Perhaps they would have won the election anyway, if only because Reagan himself was an extraordinary candidate and campaigner who ended up garnering large amounts of personal good will. But, there was only one Ronald Reagan and there’s nobody running for President this year that even comes close to him as a public speaker and a candidate. Any other Republican, running against an incumbent in a time when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to change horses, would have had a very rough time indeed I submit

Daniel Larison adds this about Sowell’s argument:

It obviously never hurts to have an appealing message, but Sowell’s claim isn’t correct. In order for incumbents to lose presidential elections, they must not only be perceived as having failed, but economic and/or international conditions have to be poor. The poor conditions make a challenger’s message resonate. Absent poor conditions, a challenger might have a very bold message that theoretically ought to be appealing, but it will not be enough to persuade most voters to support the challenger. After all, the main decision that voters are making is not whether they want to endorse the challenger’s vision, but whether they want to throw out the incumbent. The election is not going to turn on the Republican nominee’s ability to condemn the individual mandate with zeal and credibility.

The desire among conservatives to have a nominee that will “take the fight” to Obama is, in the end, a fool’s errand because it doesn’t recognize the reasons why voters are willing to fire an incumbent. If they continue living with their distorted version of history, they are going to find themselves disappointed come November.

1 I’m leaving the 19th century elections out of this mostly because I would submit that American politics has changed so significantly since that time that they aren’t particularly instructive, not to mention the fact that the manner in which we selected Presidents, and candidates, was far different.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Cycloptichorn says:

    If they continue living with their distorted version of history, they are going to find themselves disappointed come November.

    Doug – SSSHHHHHHH!!

    Jeez, didn’t you get your email from the Secret Network of Marxist bloggers instructing you to not give the game away??!?!!!?

  2. legion says:

    Like many conservatives, Thomas Sowell seems to think that one does so by drawing stark ideological contrasts with the incumbent:

    He’s not wrong, but the GOP has spent the last several years “contrasting” themselves by loudly taking the opposite position from every single thing Obama says, even when such positions are clearly insane and/or self-destructive. Sometimes, even the guys on the other side have good ideas…

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Agreed 100% with this blog post. All due respect to Sowell but he’s lost in space on this one. Not even close to being cogent. Laughably wrong, in point of fact.

    Reagan defeated Carter because Carter was presiding over a disastrous economy that got far worse in the 12 months immediately leading up to his reelection bid. Had Bush Sr. been the GOP nominee then Bush would have been elected president. Had Bob Dole received the nod then Dole would have been elected.

    If the economy and specifically the job market improve between now and Election Day then Obama will be reelected regardless whether the GOP nominates Romney, Santorum, Reagan’s ghost, Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon, Lincoln or Alexander the Great.

    If the economy and the job market stay stagnant or decline between now and Election Day Obama still might be reelected (as never before have we had a body politic so intractably divided along lines of race, age and income), but still the only way in which the GOP has the faintest chance of unseating Obama is with Romney as the nominee. Were Santorum to get the nod the entire economy could tank over the summer and Obama still would prevail in a rout. That Sowell and other putative thinkers on the right can’t discern that reality bodes quite ill for the Republican Party at large.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    “…the idea that this election is one in which the “the fate of the country” hangs in the balance, or that the results in November would represent some massive ideological shift in the direction of the nation isn’t really supported by the facts…”

    I think this is bunk. Bush43 was two steps back. Obama has been one step forward (so far). Could we really stand two more steps back? I don’t think so…but that wasn’t the point of your post.

    “…taking the international situation that existed that year off the table as well…”

    How do you do that with a straight face?

    Anyway…the real problem Republicans face is that their every position depends on a lie.
    Foreign policy…Obama apologizes for America…a lie.
    Gas prices…increased oil production is the answer…a lie.
    Health Care…The PPACA is radical socialism…a lie.
    Economics…Tax Cuts are the way to growth…a lie.
    The whole contraception kerfuffle is about Religious Freedom…a lie.
    The Republican echo chamber repeats this nonsense…but the uber-extremist right-wing echo chamber isn’t electing the President. Moderates are.
    Take Romney on the economy…first there was no recovery. Now there is a recovery but it would be faster under Romney than it has been under Obama. Why? Because he wants to slash taxes for the rich and increase military spending…and pay for it on the backs of the middle class. We are talking about massive debt explosion. But he SAYS it will balance the budget. We’ve heard that before haven’t we?
    Oh yeah…from every single Republican. And it’s always a lie.

  5. anjin-san says:

    Attacking women should do the trick…

  6. Carter not only had an economic mess, but he had a “reduce your expectations” response to it.

    It was bad symbolism to say “put on a sweater and turn down the heat.” You’ll never see a future president do that. He’ll never hand “optimism” to his successor.

    No one will make the “malaise” mistake.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Does Mr. Sowell really believe that Democrats invented the idea that Romney represents the 1%, really the 0.1%? Do you, Doug? Romney really does represent the 0.1%, which is why this really is a “fate of the country” election.

    I don’t know what the odds really are, and 60/40 isn’t all that comforting. In answer to your headline, I don’t know if Romney will succeed in defeating Obama, but we all know how he’ll try. He, his PAC, and others will spend something north of a billion dollars on a flood of dishonest attack ads painting Obama as different from “us”, not a real American. Obama caught McCain a little flat footed, they didn’t know how, in Lee Atwater’s words, to shout ‘****er, ****er’ without it being obvious. By 2010, Republicans had figured it out. This is going to be a turnout election, and it’s going to be really ugly.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    All the Democrats have to do is remind voters that if a Republican is elected we are going to get more of the things that got us into trouble in the first place:
    More Wars
    More Tax Cuts
    More Deregulation

  9. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    I addition to Carter’s blunders…Reagan had a bunch of good lies to tell…you know…like not negotiating with terrorists…who he then sold arms to.
    In the end Reagan was luckier than good. But it has helped make the faithful believe his lies like religion.
    For instance till this day we hear the Tax Cut catechism…but there were more important things driving the Reagan economy than Tax Cuts:
    Volker’s monetary policy (Volcker was appointed by Carter)
    Oil prices fell by almost 70% (Carter removed price controls which increased supply)
    Reagan’s profligate spending (see the link I provided above)
    Reagan’s devaluation of the $
    Reagan’s Tax Cuts probably rank fifth in economic impact…but that’s not the lie we hear repeated over and over again today from the echo chamber.

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    Who takes Sowell seriously. He’s got a serious case of Kool aid poisoning. Four of the incumbent defeats you mention definitely had special circumstances surrounding them.
    This quote was interesting…

    they blew their chance to beat LBJ by nominating Goldwater,

    There never the slightest chance of defeating LBJ in 1964 which is exactly why Goldwater was nominated. The party establishment knew it was going to be defeated and didn’t try too hard to resist Goldwater.

  11. DRS says:

    The best way to defeat an incumbent president (or governor too, for that matter; not sure about mayors) is to get out of the way when they’re determined to defeat themselves. Any other way is almost impossible.

    A lot of triumphalist rhetoric obscures the reality of incumbent political suicide.

  12. Racehorse says:

    By having someone like Carter as president

  13. Kylopod says:

    >Who takes Sowell seriously.

    That’s the key point here. As I was reading this, I was thinking: this is supposed to be a prestigious intellectual? He’s just reciting the standard right-wing blather where practically the only data about elections comes from fawning over the rise of Saint Ronnie and ignoring anything else. Debating people who make arguments like this is like talking to a brick wall (as anyone here who’s had the experience of discussing the matter with Eric Florack knows). The conversation always goes something like this:

    ME: The economy is usually what determines election outcomes, and the economy in 1980 was in the toilet.
    BRAINLESS RIGHT-WINGER: They said Reagan couldn’t win the presidency, and he did.

    ME: Carter was also weakened by the Iran Hostage Crisis as well as a primary challenge within his own party.
    BRAINLESS RIGHT-WINGER: They said Reagan couldn’t win the presidency, and he did.

    ME: But Carter had only like a 31% approval rating! A giraffe with herpes could have beaten him.
    BRAINLESS RIGHT-WINGER: They said Reagan couldn’t win the presidency, and he did.

    ME: In 1964, the Republicans nominated archconservative Barry Goldwater under the belief that it would give voters “a choice, not an echo” (the title of a Phyllis Schlafley book), and look how far that got him.
    BRAINLESS RIGHT-WINGER: They said Reagan couldn’t win the presidency, and he did.

    ME: You keep saying that, but all it proves is that the choice of candidate is less important than the underlying conditions of the country and the strength or weakness of the incumbent party.
    BRAINLESS RIGHT-WINGER: They said Reagan couldn’t win the presidency, and he did.

    It simply leaves me aghast that anyone takes someone like Sowell seriously, when he sounds no more convincing than the standard right-wing Internet commenter.

  14. Dazedandconfused says:

    I would point to something else as well, a very talented replacement.

    Jimmy had to run against Ron. HW, against Clinton. Two of the most talented campaign politicians to come down that pike. Not making the case that this is the single defining factor, just sayin’….

  15. I know how not to do it. Get every idiot you can find and give them money to say foolish things even lie as much as they can to say against a pretty good guy. Then have them pull their own skeletons out of the closet to attack each-other. Throw in religion and a rich buffoon there you go LOSERS

  16. Curtis says:

    The biggest mistake we tend to make is to assume winners are geniuses and losers are idiots. Everything Reagan did is seen as genius because he won two presidential elections. Same with Clinton.

    But everything Carter and Bush41 did in their campaigns are seen as idiotic because they lost. Had they won reelection, they would be seen in the same vein.

    I don’t think the third party challenger explanation makes much sense in the 1992 case; I have not seen any evidence that makes me think Bush could have beaten Clinton by himself. I would be open to seeing it, but I never have. On the other hand, Taft was the hand-picked successor to Teddy Roosevelt, and so to have Roosevelt run against him was much more dramatic. Imagine we didn’t have a two-term rule, Reagan was still vibrant, and having him in the race against Bush in 1992. Then we would parallel 1912. Perot is nowhere close to that. But I would throw 1992 into the bad economy pile, so the thesis still holds.

    Romney is going to be the nominee, and he is going to run a perfectly credible campaign. And he will win or lose. And based on that, we will consider him a tactical genius or a tactical idiot, when the simple fact of the matter is that he is neither.

  17. Kylopod says:

    >I don’t think the third party challenger explanation makes much sense in the 1992 case

    Not only are you correct in your intuition, in fact all the available evidence suggests Clinton would have won with or without Perot:

    I totally agree about how people retroactively ascribe great political talent to winning candidates and political ineptitude to the losers. Never is the effect more striking than in the 2000 election, where the “loser” actually got more votes than the “winner,” yet he’s still commonly viewed as the inferior candidate. Yes, Gore did underperform considering that the economy was doing well (though not as well as is commonly believed–there was a slowdown in income growth that year, and many economists correctly predicted that a recession was around the corner), but I have the distinct feeling that had he emerged from the recount fiasco with a lead of just 5 votes, the narrative about that race would have been very different, and Karl Rove wouldn’t have come to be viewed as the great political mastermind.

  18. This is why I said that 1992 could fall into either category, but it probably is the case that the economy was the biggest influence that year

  19. merl says:

    One way you don’t defeat an incumbent President is running a bunch of clowns and theocrats to unseat him.

  20. Anonne says:

    The answer is, “lie like a rug and hope that the electorate believes you.” Because that is precisely Romney’s angle. Doubling down on crazy and bad policy is great when the only thing that really matters is tribal politics.

  21. Tal East says:

    I would agree that your two examples of why a President is not reelected is important, but it would be more intuitive to expand the discussion (given, as you mention above, so few examples) to whether a party maintains the Presidency. When one does this I think you would have to add some additional criteria, but a REALLY bad economy & third-party challenges still would be mitigating factors.

    As to Sowell’s point, I find it to be ridiculous and like so many of Sowell’s columns, where he deviates from principle & treads into actual analysis, he is letting his beliefs influence his thinking. Regardless of how “negative” or “ideological” this campaign is, most elections are won on a referendum of how the party has performed while in power. President Obama will garner most of his votes (and vice versa) based on this rational & will compete for the winning share with tactics.

  22. Carson says:

    Get the gas up to $5 a gallon: any president will be gone.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    Get the gas up to $5 a gallon…

    Certainly that is what Republicans are hoping and praying for…