DONALD TRUMP’S FAILURE to recognize his electoral defeat belies that he turned in the worst performance for an incumbent president with only one main opponent since Herbert Hoover. Trump was also outpaced by many Republican Senate and House candidates in states like Maine and districts he needed to win, which serves as a repudiation of his presidency and undermines his attempts to extend it.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt unseated Hoover during the Great Depression, 10 presidents in addition to Trump have run for re-election in head-to-head match-ups against the main opposing party’s nominees (notwithstanding minor third party candidates). Trump’s predecessors outperformed him in all 10 of those re-election bids in both the Electoral College and popular vote by wide margins.
Roosevelt won all three of his re-election bids by Electoral College landslides and significant popular vote differentials. Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan also were re-elected in Electoral College landslides and by an average of more than 19 percentage points of the popular vote. These margins underscore the enormous intrinsic advantage of presidential incumbency, further concentrated by the enactment of term limits in the 1950s.
Harry Truman and Bill Clinton also handily won re-election, despite that each faced a noteworthy independent challenger as well as the main opposing party’s nominee, altering the dynamics of those races. Even in recent years amidst a more competitive body politic, George W. Bush and Barack Obama won re-election with more than 50 percent of the popular vote, with the former increasing his margins and the latter comfortably winning the Electoral College for a second time.
While many of these re-elected presidents benefited from periods of relative economic growth and stability, others still rode the power of the presidency to re-election during tumultuous times. Roosevelt romped while rallying the country through the Great Depression and World War II, Nixon won big amidst stagflation and cultural upheaval, and Bush prevailed despite waging a controversial war in Iraq. Even Gerald Ford outperformed Trump, earning 240 Electoral College votes and 48 percent of the popular vote despite having not been elected and unpopularly pardoning Nixon.
Only George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter earned fewer Electoral College votes and a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Trump. But pundits who often allude to those most recent examples of incumbent losses usually fail to qualify for the extraordinary impact major third party candidates had in scuttling those bids. Bush faced not only Clinton but also Ross Perot who earned nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, while Carter faced not only Reagan but also John Anderson who earned more than 6 percent of the vote. Perot and Anderson effectively triangulated the elections, tag teaming with Clinton and Reagan against the incumbents and depriving them of their typically higher margins in both the Electoral College and popular vote.
Trump, on the other hand, had only one major opponent, Joe Biden. Moreover, while the pandemic weakened Trump’s hand, he had every opportunity like Roosevelt and others to seize the reins and lead the country through adversity, reinforcing his power along the way. Instead, he essentially abdicated his role in dealing with the pandemic, denying, deflecting, and deferring to the states, and was similarly feckless in responding to its economic consequences and overlapping crises from the country’s racial reckoning to climate-related natural disasters.
Trump also failed to follow the successful incumbent formula of moving more to the center as re-election approached to expand his electoral base. Nixon visited China in 1972, while Clinton introduced welfare reform in 1996, broadening their appeal. In contrast, Trump moved further to the right this year, alienating many key swing voters.
Trump’s style and strategy clearly backfired, as not only his loss but also the comparable success of his fellow Republicans in other key races suggest. Trump lost Maine by more than 10 points, while incumbent Republican US Sen. Susan Collins won by nearly 8 points. Trump lost Nebraska’s Second Congressional District by more than 5 points, with Biden earning an elector, while incumbent Republican Congressman Don Bacon won by more than 5 points. Trump lost pivotal Bucks County, Pennsylvania, while incumbent Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick was re-elected with more 56 percent of the vote. And Trump is losing in Georgia, a state that hasn’t been blue since 1992, while incumbent Republican US Sen. David Perdue is ahead in his race (though not clearing the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff in January).
The thread running through nearly nine decades of dominance by presidents who sought re-election is the power of incumbency, which Trump frittered away rather than exercising to its full advantage. As Trump seeks to extend his presidency with unsubstantiated claims, he is relying on a false narrative that he performed better than he actually did.
Trump’s loss is an historic defeat and largely unforced error that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. He is the biggest loser since Herbert Hoover.
James Davitt Rooney is principal of Rooney Associates LLC. He earned an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School and a BA in ethics and political philosophy from Brown University.