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Power of the Incumbent: Why Obama’s Re-Election Would Be Truly Historic

Here is a piece of trivia—maybe trivial, maybe not—to think about as we head into President Obama’s speech tonight: if he wins in November, it will be only the second time in American history, and the first in nearly 200 years, that three consecutive presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) have been re-elected—that is, have won election while serving a term to which they had been elected. The last time it happened was during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, which lasted from 1801 to 1825.

We have gotten close once before: after Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected three times, and before Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected in 1952 and re-elected in 1956, Harry Truman served nearly two full terms and in 1948 won as the incumbent. But it was FDR, not Truman, who won the 1944 presidential election, and there is no way to know whether Truman would have won it instead.

It is also worth noting that the prime obstacle to such a run having occurred so far has probably been death, not weak incumbents. John F. Kennedy would likely have stood a good chance at defeating Barry Goldwater in 1964, giving us Eisenhower-Kennedy-Richard Nixon.

Several presidential historians I contacted were agnostic on whether Obama’s re-election would signal a new era for the power of presidential incumbency or just be a neat fact (they agreed it was at least that).

“If Obama wins again, it is likely to be by a narrow margin, like Bush 43,” said Michael Beschloss. “Thus if two out of these three re-election victories are very close, it would be hard to argue for a pronounced historical trend, although you can certainly argue that Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama have all shrewdly made use of their incumbency in their re-election campaigns.”

Added David M. Kennedy, “You may be onto something more interesting with respect to the power of incumbency, which arguably has expanded along with the reach of federal power in the post-World War Two era, as well as with the pervasiveness of the media and the ‘free’ coverage that an incumbent can command.”

Certainly this hypothetical run is not comparable to the Jefferson-Madison-Monroe trifecta, which Beschloss attributed to the collapse of the Federalist Party, and which overlapped with the “Era of Good Feelings.” Given that our third, fourth, and fifth presidents were members of the same party while our current potential run would involve both, an Obama re-election is a stronger statement about the power of incumbency.

Herb Weisberg, a professor of political science at Ohio State and the author of a paper called Partisanship and Incumbency in Presidential Elections noted that in the 20th century, he found that Democrats won almost ten percent more of the vote when they ran as incumbents, and that in the second half of the past century incumbents were better at holding onto their own party’s votes, garnering independent votes, and even pulling voters away from the opposition party.

“Even when controlling for the state of the economy,” he added, “the incumbent party does better when the sitting president is running for re-election, particularly among independents but also among weak partisans.”

In a follow-up conversation, Weisberg observed, “In ’96, Clinton had a great economy behind his back, and in ’04 Bush was still benefiting from his strong response to 9/11. The economy wasn't hurting either one of them.” The poor economy is a signficant challenge to Obama, but Weisberg argued that if the Democratic candidate were instead Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, he or she would face an even steeper slope.

“It’s fascinating how little that’s happened,” he added. “In some periods of U.S. history, they just alternated all the time.”