Donald Trump is officially a president with a term who became the first to fail a re-election bid in nearly 30 years. However, history shows that given the circumstances, his loss is not surprising.
One-term presidents used to be a much more often. Take, for example, the period between 1837 (when Andrew Jackson’s second term ended) and 1860 – no president served more than one term. And between 1900 and 1932 we had seven presidents, only one of whom had two full terms. (Some died in office, some lost re-election, and others chose not to run for another term.) In recent times, however, presidents have increasingly resigned from office because term limits prevent them from staying, not because voters refused them to have.
One of the main questions facing one-year-old presidents is whether their fate is largely shaped by their actions and political failures, or primarily by conditions beyond their control. This is a difficult question, of course, as there are some traits that one-term presidents seem to share – poor economics, poor leadership – but it’s hard to know how well these factors are actually under their control.
Let’s start with the biggest factor that holds annual presidents together: a major economic downturn. Herbert Hoover, who was president at the beginning of the Great Depression, is perhaps the most extreme example. It is estimated that there was unemployment during the Great Depression 20 percent or moreand thousands of Banks failed. And while Hoover has taken steps to deal with the crisis, his view has been that voluntary programs are preferable direct government involvement in stabilizing the economy ultimately cost him. Newer presidents like Jimmy Carter, who was in office during his tenure a less severe but still serious economic recession, also paid for it at the ballot box. Similarly, the same inflation problems that plagued Carter had previously worsened Gerald Fordwho lost to Carter four years ago. And rising unemployment in 1992 quickly undermined support for George H.W. Bush in this year’s election, even after he was very popular during his presidency.
The importance of business for a president’s re-election also depends on the timing. If a crisis or recession strikes in a year of re-election, it can create problems. In contrast, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were both weathered Recessions during her tenure, but these downturns hit a a few years before they were re-elected.
While the coronavirus pandemic was (and is) an extraordinary event, the economic crisis it caused is in fact in some ways the same as other presidents with a term of office find themselves in. It is true that despite the massive layoffs this year, many voters still held positive views on Trump’s handling of the economy, but public opinion data also suggested that voters were particularly concerned about the pandemic. In addition, they generally thought Trump did a poor job, which made it difficult to detach the public health crisis from the economic downturn that caused it.
There is also the question of how a president leads in a moment of crisis that has been the downfall of many one-year presidents. For example, to quote Hoover again, the popular memory is particularly important unforgiving of his handling of the global economic crisis. At the time, his name was linked to camps built by unemployed Americans as shelter when they lost their homesand a “Hoover flag” referred to an empty pocket that was turned inside out. Of course, Hoover is an extreme example, but other presidents in office have faced a similar fate and earned reputations hapless and shaky in the face of serious challenges. This was certainly the case with Trump, who is believed to have poorly managed the pandemic and from downplaying the severity of the disease, worsened the partisan differences on how best to fight them.
However, when analyzing one-term presidents, it is difficult to know how much this is actually under their control. We know that presidents are not infinitely powerful, especially when it comes to developing vital laws to address complex economic problems. Take Carter. The economists of the time believed that government spending should be cut stop inflationThis meant that government programs were cut significantly, but this was politically impossible for Carter as Congress would have resisted and he would have lost support among the New Deal Democrats, who were still an important part of the party coalition.
The political scientist Stephen Skowronek refers to this dilemma, Which President are regularly found in, as the “Politics of disjunction”- Circumstances in which a party coalition (in Carter’s New Deal Democrats case) has dominated politics for decades and the politicians elected by that coalition are committed to the ideas and guidelines they put into office, but those ideas are no longer good Game to tackle the country’s problems.
Presidents in these situations often attempt to resolve the crises that appear on their watch, but encounter serious political limitations in the process. Hoover also falls into this category. He undertook some political experiments, including the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporationwho wanted to publicly support banks and railways. But like Carter, Hoover was caught between pushing the boundaries of what was politically feasible at the time, especially within his own party, and the fact that much bigger changes were needed to address the economic crisis.
How does this apply to Trump? In a way, we can see how the problems of political feasibility shaped the business cycle negotiations. It would have been almost impossible to get Congressional Republicans to vote for a major auxiliary bill regardless of who was president. But it’s also hard to say that the White House took the pandemic seriously and was then foiled by politics in Congress or elsewhere. Instead, Trump publicly fought with Democratic governors to reopen some types of businesses, urged the public not to let the virus control their lives (after self-diagnosing it), and denied the gravity of the situation at almost every stage.
This is not a typical story, even for presidents who mistreated the crisis they faced and subsequently lost re-election, making it especially difficult to answer how much of Trump’s failure to get re-elected, Trump was his own fault and how much it was due to factors beyond his control.
What is interesting here, however, is that Trump was a competitive incumbent despite these circumstances. Both parties benefited from it Record voter turnoutand in the end, he will likely have won 47 percent of the popular vote, compared to 40 percent for Hoover, Carter, and Bush. Despite Trump’s low approval ratings, he also didn’t face any major opponent – which also sets his experience apart from that of Ford, Carter, and Bush.
That last point might give us a clue as to why it has been so long since a president lost re-election. We have become more polarized as a county, and as a result, the parties have become more ideologically unified, making the factional policy that drives the primary challengers less likely. Negative partisanship has also increased the stakes and displaced the possibilities for a centrist independent candidacy to split a party. Indeed, consolidating party support around presidential candidates has arguably helped incumbents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama win re-election.
Ultimately, Trump’s presidency faced some of the same problems that toppled other governments: economic problems and political dissatisfaction with poor leadership. But he also brought his own political baggage with him. And while, even in today’s highly polarized environment, it might be difficult to unravel the two, that combination didn’t bode well for his re-election chances.