Mitt Romney has the chance to do something that doesn’t happen very often—defeat an incumbent president.
There are only two real examples of this in modern political history. After the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush had approval ratings between 80 and 90 percent. The peaceful conclusion of the Cold War during his first term made Bush look like a lock for reelection.
Top Democratic figures, most notably New York Governor Mario Cuomo, passed on running against Bush. The Democratic field appeared very weak, and Bill Clinton had to survive a series of personal scandals to win his party’s nomination. But when the economy went into a recession in 1992, Clinton was able to capitalize on dissatisfaction with Bush’s economic stewardship. After a tremendously successful Democratic convention, Clinton took a 20-point lead.
Though Clinton’s lead narrowed in the fall, he defeated Bush by six points—an impressive victory over a president, who in retrospect looks rather successful.
The other case was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was in a more precarious position than Bush. His foreign policy record was marred by the festering Iranian hostage crisis. The economy had both rampant inflation and high unemployment. But in spite of his weak standing, Carter was at worst tied with potential challengers throughout most of 1980. Polls between Carter and Reagan seesawed back and forth, but until late October it was a close race. Finally, in the sole debate five days before the election, a clear Reagan win boosted Reagan to a 10-point victory.
The one other time an incumbent president lost in recent history was when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in 1976. His loss was an anomaly. Ford had never been elected in his own right, which deprived him of one of the advantages an incumbent has—already being deemed acceptable by voters. Furthermore, Ford survived a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan by the skin of his teeth. He was a marked man politically, after pardoning Richard Nixon in the fall of 1974, and Carter had a 30-point lead in the summer of 1976—atypical of the dynamic between a challenger and incumbent. So 1976 was, at best, a victory over a semi-incumbent.
Before that, you have to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 to find a challenger who was able to defeat an incumbent president. Roosevelt was able to easily dispatch Herbert Hoover, during the worst year of the Great Depression.
Many incumbents win by blowout margins. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were able to win reelection by at least eight points and often by 15 points or more. All of these presidents were overseeing economic situations that were satisfactory or clearly improving. The few incumbents to lose all had issues with economic management. If an incumbent president is overseeing a strong economy, he is almost a lock to win.
There are two other cases where an incumbent was able to win narrowly. In 1948, Harry Truman capitalized on defections from both the right and left to win an upset victory over Thomas Dewey. In this case, the economy was at the beginning of an economic expansion, and Truman likely would have lost if the election was held a few months earlier.
The other narrow reelection was George W. Bush in 2004. That election was a referendum on Bush’s anti-terrorism strategy and particularly the Iraq War. The economy was generally good enough for Bush’s reelection, but war and peace issues were the determining factor in voters’ minds.
Since the New Deal, the only politicians to defeat a true incumbent president were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—likely the two best politicians in living memory. Both men were able to create a new political coalition that changed American politics. Reagan was the figure more responsible than any other for the current alignment of the Republican Party as the conservative party and the Democratic Party as the liberal party. Clinton was able to overcome a persistent Republican advantage in presidential elections and affected a strong coalition that has mostly endured to the present.
If Romney is able to win, he would be in good company. We should also be alert to the possibility that a Romney victory could mean an upending of existing political realities.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.