The week leading up to the election, our entire class correctly predicted that Barack Obama would get reelected to serve a second term as our President. In the week following the election, both parties have speculated what led to the election results—the Republican Party speculating their demise was due to low levels of field campaigning or not reaching minorities well. Although we saw a very close race on Tuesday, November 6th, my question is: how much does an incumbency effect an election? Did Mitt Romney really have a viable chance against the standing president? After the tragic storm Sandy hit the northeast, the entire country was able to see the President take action and work with politicians with opposing views and partisanship to help the millions of Americans affected by the storm. There was nothing Mitt Romney could do except keep campaigning. I think the power of being the standing President can heavily affect the election. The New York Times‘s blog, “Five Thirty Eight,” wrote a great article outlining the powerful effects of an incumbent party throughout a campaign, but I prefer to analyze elections where one of the candidates is the current President.
Since the Great Depression seven of our presidents were elected to serve a second term – Barack Obama, George Bush Jr., Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt. There were only three presidents in that time frame who ran for a second term and lost. The first being Herbert Hoover, but the entire economy collapsed during his first term which contributed to his lost. The next one term president was Jimmy Carter and many attributed his loss to the Iran Hostage Crisis. The only other one term president was George Bush Sr. and it was speculated his loss was due to the economic struggles during that time period. There is also a smattering of Vice Presidents who had to finish out their President’s term, were elected to a second and then chose not to run again or lost the election for a third term. I chose not to examine those because those situations are different than the 2012 election. Instead I chose to focus on Presidents who were elected in to office and elected to stay for a second term. The history of these past elections has suggested that being an incumbent must mean something. Only three presidents since the Great Depression have lost reelection and there seems to be an extenuating circumstance that ultimately led to their defeat. An opinion article in Bloomberg argues that a crisis can make or break a president. If a President can lead through a crisis they are likely to be reelected. For example, Franklin Roosevelt led our country through the toughest economic times we have seen and was reelected with over 98% of the electoral votes. For the three presidents I mentioned earlier, it is clear that they did not handle the crisis of their first term well enough for the public to have faith in another term.
David Mayhew analyzes the incumbent effect on an election in his article, “Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record.” Mayhew says, “What seems to happen is that being in office gives an opportunity for continued electoral success, but that the opportunity can be blown—sometimes spectacularly blown.” This is seen specifically in the case of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Mayhew’s research suggests that there is an inherent effect of a incumbent running for reelection. According to history a candidate running for reelection has won two out of every three times. He also found that a party trying to remain in office regardless of if an incumbent is running only won one out of every two elections. Mayhew further discusses the many aspects that may explain this disparity. He outlines six potential explanations. One: the candidate’s capabilities and skills acquired while serving as President. Two: the campaign capabilities due to having already run a successful campaign. Three: attitudes of voters toward someone they already know. Four: the candidate’s superior talents of which the public has already seen proof. Five: incumbent party fatigue. Six: the strategic behaviors taken by both parties. I think the first four are rather self explanatory as to why an incumbent would be successful in reelection. I chose to examine the last two more thoroughly. Mayhew says that as the number of terms increase that one political party is in office that party becomes fatigued and the other party becomes hungry. This is why we often see a party switch every 8 years. He says that the incumbent effect is powerful but once that party is in office for two terms, the party starts to lose points in the polls. He says a prime example of this is the Bush v. Gore race in 2000. The sixth explanation is the strategic position each party takes during the course of the election. The out-of-office party can not take as many risks in a presidential election as they can in smaller races, but they still must be competitive. The in-office party during an election year without an incumbent needs to present a candidate that is just as strong as the outgoing President. These last two aspects explain why there is a disparity between the success of an incumbent candidate versus and incumbent party.
Through history and research it is evident that there is a powerful effect that accompanies the incumbent in a presidential election. Most of the historical research by Mayhew has shown that the incumbent usually wins by a large majority. However this election we saw a much closer race than expected with an incumbent. My hypothesis is that in 2012 both candidates used the economy to their benefit. As we read in the Vavreck text, when there is a mixed economy the roles of clarifying candidate and insurgent candidate are not clear. Vavreck suggests that if the clarifying candidate, the one who is benefiting from the economy, focuses his campaign on the economy he will be successful. I believe that since the roles were not clear and both candidates used the economy to their benefit there was a much closer race.