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Four Reasons Why Incumbents Fail to Win a Second Term

What can the past tell us about 2020?

What keeps single-term Presidents from earning a second term?

Here are America’s twelve single-term Presidents. The list leaves out the eight men who died in office, and the five Presidents (see Note below) who only served out the term of a deceased –in one case, resigned— predecessor and were not reelected in their own right,

2d John Adams (Not reelected)
6th John Quincy Adams (Not reelected)
8th Martin Van Buren (Not reelected)
11th James Knox Polk (Pledged to serve a single term and did not seek a second term)
14th Franklin Pierce (Denied nomination)
15th James Buchanan (Did not seek a second term)
19th Rutherford B. Hayes (Pledged to serve a single term)
23rd Benjamin Harrison (Not reelected)
27th William Howard Taft (Not reelected)
31st Herbert Hoover (Not reelected)
39th Jimmy Carter (Not reelected)
41st George H.W. Bush (Not reelected)

Grover Cleveland deserves a footnote here. The 22nd President was elected in 1884 and then defeated in a controversial election, despite winning the popular vote in 1888. But he won again in 1892 and returned to the White House in 1893 as the 24th President.

Clearly, the first rule about being reelected President is to avoid having the name Adams. We can also set aside James Knox Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes as exceptions; they did not run for a second term, for differing reasons.

But there are a few common themes here:

•Tough act to follow: Several of the Presidents who failed in a bid for a second term were following an extremely popular President: John Adams (after Washington), Martin Van Buren (Andrew Jackson), William Howard Taft (Theodore Roosevelt), and George H.W. Bush (Ronald Reagan).

Each of these men had to contend with the expectations —and perhaps the “fatigue factor”— of following in the footsteps of four of the most popular Presidents in history. Taft’s case is also unusual –he had to run against his popular predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and finished third, with Woodrow Wilson winning the 1912 election.

•Not the People’s Choice: John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election based on the vote in the House of Representatives. His opponent, Andrew Jackson, the popular vote winner, called it the “corrupt bargain” and won four years later.

Although Hayes had pledged not run again, he also became President in 1876, when a special Commission awarded him some disputed electoral votes, denying the popular vote winner, Samuel Tilden. Harrison also won a disputed election in 1888 in which election fraud wass credited with giving Harrison the electors from Indiana.

Ineffective: Pierce and Buchanan, who both were contending with a nation heading almost inexorably towards Civil War, are often ranked among the worst American Presidents; neither was renominated by their party. Most of the other one-termers score fairly low in presidential rankings. Jimmy Carter was given poor marks for his handling of the Iran hostage crisis. But his loss may have more to do with the next key theme.

•It’s the economy stupid: Many elections are won and lost on pocketbook issues. Opponents called Van Buren “Martin Van Ruin” as the nation endured a long economic downturn. Herbert Hoover presided over the Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter, saddled with unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates (remember 12%?), and George H.W. Bush were also hurt by severe recessions on their watch.

During his first term, Ronald Reagan was saddled with a deep recession and a high unemployment rate (10.8% in November 1982). Reagan suffered a sharp setback in the midterm elections of 1982. But over the next two years, the economy began to turn and Reagan went on to a landslide victory to secure his second term in 1984.

The history of Presidential reelection fortunes? Maybe it is all about the “benjamins” in the end.

What happens in 2020?

•The incumbent is following a popular president

•He was not elected by popular vote

•He has failed on handling a pandemic

•The economy is in serious trouble

We’ll see if history’s lessons apply.


*Among the Presidents who took office on the death (or resignation) of the President, there are five who did not win a term of their own and they also receive generally low historical ratings:
10th John Tyler (Denied nomination)
13th Millard Fillmore (Denied nomination)
17th Andrew Johnson (Denied nomination)
21st Chester A. Arthur       (Denied nomination)
38th Gerald Ford (Lost bid for second term)


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