Swept Back In – Or Swept Right Out

We at the Crystal Ball are pleased to welcome a new staffer to our precincts, Kyle Kondik. A former journalist from Ohio and a current political junkie extraordinaire, Kyle loves the facts and figures of elections, as you will see with his first offering on this website. Kyle previously served as Director of Policy and Research in the office of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, where he wrote speeches and directed the office’s online communications. Prior to that, Kyle was an editorial page editor and political columnist at The Chronicle-Telegram and a reporter at The Times-Reporter, two mid-sized newspapers in Northeast Ohio. Kyle can be reached at kondik@virginia.edu. ~The Editors

Now that President Barack Obama confirmed the obvious on Monday—he will be running for a second term—his challenge is not only to win, but also to continue a historical trend: two-term presidents win their second term more convincingly than their first.

The last president who won a second term directly after his first term without improving his share of the popular vote was Andrew Jackson, who received 54.7% of the popular vote in 1832 after his 55.9% showing in 1828. Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost support in his third and fourth successful runs at the presidency, but because of the 22nd Amendment his successors are limited to two terms, and his share of the vote improved from his initial victory in 1932 (57.4%) to his first re-election in 1936 (60.8%).

History shows that Americans tend to affirm their chief executive when he runs for his second term; that is if they don’t decisively throw him out instead. The five presidents to be re-elected in the post-FDR era—George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower—improved their performance by an average of 7.3 points in their re-election bids. Meanwhile, the two incumbents who lost re-election bids in that same period—George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter—were thoroughly rejected, losing 15.9 and 9.1 percentage points respectively off their winning performances four years prior. Significant third party candidacies, especially in the case of Nixon’s first winning run (George Wallace) and Bush’s re-election loss (Ross Perot), color these results, but the essential point—incumbents typically gain additional support in successful re-election bids—remains.

It is difficult to handicap Obama’s chances of keeping this trend alive, though at first blush his challenge seems daunting. Obama’s 52.9% share of the vote was the best effort for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. He also benefited by running during an economic crisis and in the shadow of the unpopular George W. Bush’s presidency.  The magic that fueled Obama’s 2008 campaign will be hard to re-create, especially in the face of heated Republican opposition, legion economic and foreign policy challenges and middling approval ratings.

On the other hand, a strong Republican challenger has not yet emerged. For instance, polling averages at the website RealClearPolitics have Obama leading a generic Republican by 2.8 percentage points, but he leads named opponents by bigger margins, including Mitt Romney (4.7 points), Mike Huckabee (5 points) and Newt Gingrich (14.6 points). It will be hard for Republicans to blunt Obama’s performance, let alone beat him, if their best candidate is “anonymous.”

This is not to somehow preclude the possibility of an Obama squeaker in 2012; rather, it is simply to note that when the American people are asked to grade incumbent presidents at the ballot box, they are more likely to award an A or an F instead of a C.

Presidential Re-Election Bids in Post-FDR Era

Seven presidents have sought a second term since 1945. The five who succeeded performed noticeably better in their re-election bids; the two who failed, meanwhile, were soundly rejected.

President First Election % Second Election % Difference
George W. Bush 47.9 50.7 +2.8
Bill Clinton 43 49.2 +6.2
George H.W. Bush 53.4 37.5 -15.9
Ronald Reagan 50.8 58.8 +8
Jimmy Carter 50.1 41 -9.1
Richard Nixon 43.4 60.7 +17.3
Dwight Eisenhower 55.2 57.4 +2.2

Source: Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.