Monday, August 12, 2019


President Trump remains unique, fitting neither boom nor bust of normal incumbency campaigns. 

All re-elections are referendums on the incumbent, and in that 2020 is nothing unusual in being one on Mr. Trump. Where 2020 differs is that Mr. Trump currently does not exhibit the traits of being solidly re-elected or soundly defeated, which is the bifurcated norm when incumbents run for second terms. 

The most notable aspect of incumbent presidents seeking re-election is they overwhelmingly win. Since 1916, elected incumbents (either elected president or vice president, who as president then ran) are 13-3 when seeking another term.

Dropping FDR’s third and fourth campaigns, and elected incumbents seeking a second term are still 11-3. All except one of the 11 (Barack Obama) saw their popular vote percentage increase.  

Overall, elected incumbents seeking a second term have averaged a 3.4 percent increase in the popular vote percentage. However, beneath the last century’s incumbency supremacy lies a bifurcation. When incumbents win, they win big, increasing their popular vote on average by 5.3 percentage points.  

It therefore takes something for an incumbent to lose: In each of the three losses, the economy has contracted within a year of the election. When incumbents lose, they do so spectacularly, their popular vote dropping 14.5 percentage points on average.  

With 2020 presenting another incumbent scenario, where does President Trump fit into such elections’ normal bifurcation? 

For those predicting Mr. Trump’s defeat, the evidence is missing. Most notably, the economy is strong and decidedly stronger than Mr. Obama’s. Mr. Trump therefore gains absolutely and relatively. Considering that every incumbent who lost in the last century did so with a weak economy, this is important. Further, time is running out — only five quarters remain — for it to get weak ahead of the election.  

This is probably the biggest reason why Mr. Trump also does not exhibit a precipitous drop in support, as the century’s three incumbent losers did. The smallest drop in popular vote support was Jimmy Carter’s 1980 9 percent plummet. According to Real Clear Politics’ national average of job approval polls, Mr. Trump’s stands at 43.9 percent — roughly two points below his 2016 popular vote total of 46.2 percent.  

And there are real reasons to expect Mr. Trump’s 2020 popular vote percentage to be even higher than today’s job approval. Foremost is the Democrats’ likely nominee, who has the potential to be the nation’s most liberal. 

With liberals, America’s smallest ideological group, that means Democrats likely start at a disadvantage when the final leg of the race begins. Additionally, Mr. Trump has no military entanglement to weigh him down, as Mr. Carter did with the Iranian hostages in 1980.  

However, while Trump supporters can take real comfort that their candidate does not exhibit the signs incumbent losers historically have, they also must recognize he does not have the signs of second-term winners.  

Mr. Trump’s low job approval is the most obvious sign he is not expanding his support beyond his base. That is something incumbent winners have done — even when they won narrow initial victories. Richard Nixon (43.2 percent) in 1968 and Bill Clinton (43 percent) in 1992 both won with lower popular vote percentages than Mr. Trump in 2016.

Yet, Richard Nixon (17.3 percentage points) and Bill Clinton (6.2 percentage points) saw dramatic surges in their second successful campaigns. Mr. Trump has thus far shown nothing indicating such a surge, and barring a third party candidate splitting his opposition, Mr. Trump will likely need a higher percentage to win re-election. 

Just as he has been since he first sought the 2016 Republican nomination, Mr. Trump looks to remain an enigma in re-election. With the 2020 campaign underway, his re-election appears equally able to go either way. Considering his sui generis presidency, this is not surprising; considering the last century’s incumbent re-elections, it is unique.  

His re-election appears no less subject to contradictions than his administration. He has policy accomplishments (“peace and prosperity”) that should make an incumbent a re-election winner. However, he has personal attributes (divisive with high negatives) that argue for his defeat.  

Perhaps it is fitting such ambiguity be left to re-election for resolution. The coming campaign will be a verdict on his entire presidency: Was 2016 a fluke, was his first term a success, and will there be a second term?   

In the last century, there have been no successful one-term presidents; it is an argument not even commonly attempted. Re-election is therefore a requirement for success, though not a guarantee of it. Mr. Trump’s presidency continues to hang in the balance — just as it has since he first won — this time on 2020.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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