Obama’s Advantage

First Term Incumbents Rarely Lose but a Close Election Likely


The 2012 presidential election is still more than 20 months away. While the early maneuvering for the Republican presidential nomination is already underway, the identity of President Obama’s GOP challenger won’t be known for more than a year. Economic trends will have a major impact on the President’s reelection chances and unpredictable events, such as the recent political turmoil in Egypt, could also affect the public’s evaluation of the President’s performance.

But even without knowing what condition the economy will be in, whether a major international crisis will erupt, or who will win the Republican nomination, one crucial determinant of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election is already known. Barack Obama will be seeking reelection as a first term incumbent and first term incumbents rarely lose.

In the past hundred years, there have been ten presidential elections in which an incumbent president was seeking a second term in the White House for his party with the most recent being 2004. The key distinction here is the number of terms the incumbent’s party has been in office, not the number of terms the individual incumbent has been in office. Incumbent party candidates have won nine of those ten first term elections. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was the only first term incumbent party candidate in the past century to lose and it took a devastating combination of recession, inflation, and public frustration over the seemingly endless Iran hostage crisis to bring him down.

In contrast to first term incumbents, second or later term incumbents have had a much harder time winning reelection. In the past century, eight incumbents have sought a third or later term in the White House. Four of them won while four lost, including the most recent second term incumbent—George H.W. Bush in 1992. And non-incumbents seeking a third or later term for their party have fared even worse. Of the seven non-incumbents seeking a third or later term in the White House for their party, only one was successful. Ironically, it was George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Even after controlling for two other factors that have been found to accurately predict the outcomes of presidential elections—the growth rate of the economy in the first half of the election year and the president’s approval rating at midyear—first term incumbents have done significantly better than second or later term incumbents and non-incumbents.

Table 1 displays the results of a regression analysis of the outcomes of the 16 U.S. presidential elections since the end of World War II. The dependent variable in this analysis is the incumbent party’s share of the major party vote. The independent variables are the incumbent president’s net approval rating (approval-disapproval) in the Gallup Poll at midyear, the annual growth rate of real GDP in the second quarter of the election year, and a dummy variable distinguishing between first term incumbents and all other types of incumbent party candidates.

Table 1. Results of Regression Analysis of Presidential Election Outcomes

Source: Data compiled by author.

This simple forecasting model does an excellent job of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections, explaining just over 90 percent of the variance in the incumbent party’s share of the popular vote. The model has correctly predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1988 more than two months before Election Day. In 2008, the model correctly predicted a comfortable victory for Barack Obama over John McCain at a time when McCain had taken the lead over Obama in a number of national polls following the Republican National Convention.

The results displayed in Table 1 indicate that the higher reelection rate of first term incumbents compared with other types of candidates is not a by-product of differences in economic conditions or presidential popularity. First term incumbents have an advantage of more than four percentage points compared with other candidates of the incumbent party after controlling for the effects of economic growth and presidential approval.

What to Expect in 2012

It is far too early to predict the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. Economic conditions and the President’s approval rating could change considerably between now and the middle of next year. However, the clear implication of the results in Table 1 is that regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, even modest economic growth and a mediocre approval rating in 2012 would probably be enough to give Barack Obama a second term in the White House. For example, an annual growth rate of three percent in the second quarter (slightly below the most recent estimate for the fourth quarter of 2010) and a net approval rating of zero at midyear (slightly worse than Obama’s average rating over the past month) would result in a forecast of 53 percent of the national popular vote for the President which would almost certainly produce a decisive victory in the Electoral College.

There is an important caveat that should be added to these conclusions, however. While the “time for change” forecasting model described above has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in the last five presidential elections, the last four winners—Bill Clinton in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008—all won by a smaller margin than expected. The predicted and actual popular vote margins in these elections are displayed in Table 2. On average, the winning candidate’s popular vote margin was 4.5 points smaller than the margin predicted by the model.

Table 2. Predicted and Actual Popular Vote Margins in Presidential Elections, 1996-2008

Note: Based on major party vote.

Source: Data compiled by author.

Four elections do not establish a clear trend, but the fact that all of these elections were closer than predicted and the fact that we haven’t had a true landslide election since 1984 suggest that there is something else going on that is not captured by the forecasting model. That something may be polarization.

Since the 1990s the American party system has been characterized by a sharp ideological divide between the two major parties, a close division within the electorate between supporters of the two parties, and high levels of party loyalty in voting. There is no reason to expect that pattern to change in 2012. If Barack Obama does win a second term in the White House, it will most likely be by a fairly narrow margin unless economic growth and the President’s approval rating both show dramatic improvement in the next 18 months.

Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and the author of The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. Professor Abramowitz—or a facsimile—has recently been quoted in The Onion as well. He can be contacted via email at polsaa@emory.edu.