Skip to main content

Economy not key to incumbent winning

By Kenneth C. Davis, Special to CNN
November 1, 2012 -- Updated 2217 GMT (0617 HKT)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ken Davis: Pundits and press say economy is the key to whether incumbent is reelected
  • But history shows it's never as simple as jobs, taxes, deficits and debt, Davis says
  • Political and legitimacy, likeability issues, he says, have sunk incumbent in boom times
  • Davis: Same issues and others have buoyed incumbents on to reelection despite bad economy

Editor's note: Historian Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don't Know Much About History" and, most recently, "Don't Know Much About the American Presidents." He blogs at dontknowmuch.com

(CNN) -- Is a struggling economy the key ingredient that dooms an incumbent president to a single term?

The carved-in-stone political wisdom seems to suggest it is. Unemployment rates, the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, and GDP growth are held up by pundits and press as the essential indicators of whether a sitting president keeps the keys to the White House.

The trouble is -- and as history shows -- it's never as simple as jobs, taxes, deficits and debt.

Here's the presidential scoreboard. Starting with George Washington's 1792 reelection, 19 incumbents have been returned to office, while another eight were either denied the nomination or chose not to run, usually over political, not economic, issues. Five presidents died during their first term. That leaves 10 first-term presidents who lost their re-election bids.

Pop quiz: Why did these "one-term wonders" lose?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



An economy in the dumpster was a decisive factor in only four of those 10 incumbent losses: Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush were turned out of office largely because of ailing economies.

Opinion: Are Obama, Romney ignoring Mexico's drug war?

America's eighth president, Martin Van Buren, had the misfortune of occupying the White House during the Panic of 1837, one of the nation's first and most severe economic downturns. Cast as "Martin Van Ruin" and attacked for his "lavish" White House expenditures and dandified style, Van Buren lost overwhelmingly in 1840 to William Henry Harrison by 234-60 electoral votes.

What Hurricane Sandy means for economy
Obama, Romney look-alikes cashing in
Orlando mayor on the economy

Nearly a century later, Herbert Hoover had "General Prosperity" on his side in his 1928 victory. But following the Crash of '29, Hoover had to run against "General Depression," as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The economy was the only issue as Roosevelt swept 42 of 48 states and more than 57% of the popular vote.

More recently, Jimmy Carter was saddled with a dysfunctional economy beset by inflation, slow growth, and oil shocks from the Middle East as he faced reelection in 1980. These economic woes were compounded as television ticked off the number of days that Americans were held hostage in Iran and an ill-fated rescue mission ended in disaster. Despite the landmark 1978 Camp David peace accord Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt, it was Ronald Reagan's famous debate question -- "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" -- that doomed the former peanut farmer, crushed in the electoral vote 489-49.

Finally, George H.W. Bush, or "41," fell victim to a sputtering economy in his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton: a race complicated by the presence of third-party candidate Ross Perot. That was when the famous Clinton "war room" gave birth to the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," which has influenced political thinking ever since.

But consider the flip side: the incumbents who won in spite of an ailing economy.

America's ongoing calamity did not dim the chances of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over a basket-case economy by most measures in 1936.

Depression still ravaged the nation, with unemployment near 17% that year. But the election was a referendum on Roosevelt and his New Deal. At a rally in New York, FDR said of his opponents, "They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred." Carrying every state but Maine and Vermont, FDR swept to a second term.

Opinion: Don't let superstorm sway your vote

Four years later, the economy was still limping with nearly 15% unemployment. But these financial woes were an afterthought, as war in Europe loomed and FDR's bid for an unprecedented third term became the issues. Again, the "Champ" prevailed, convincingly flooring Wendell L. Willkie, who had no counterpunch for the Roosevelt magic. FDR's ability to connect with average Americans, a mysterious alchemy, has rarely been matched in presidential history.

And it was a touch of that alchemy that Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, mustered when his prospects plunged in 1948. Despite succeeding the fallen FDR in 1945 and overseeing the final victory over Germany and Japan, Truman was saddled with inflation, high taxes, labor strife and corruption in Washington.

But he triumphed in one of the most astonishing "off the mat" finishes in political history. Truman did it by embarking on an extraordinary campaign that targeted a "do-nothing Congress" and argued that the Republican opposition was more interested in "the welfare of the better classes."

Finally, what does history say about one-term losers unhorsed in fairly good times?

America's second president, John Adams, and his son, sixth president John Quincy Adams, were the first two incumbents to be sent packing after their terms, for what today are called "likeability" issues. Both presidents served in periods of relative peace and prosperity. But John Adams was turned out of office in 1800 in favor of Thomas Jefferson, largely over politics and personality, not economic policy.

Caricatured as an out-of-touch elitist, his son, John Quincy Adams ran against Andrew Jackson, the "man of the people" you wanted to have a beer with, in the brutal campaign of 1832, one of the nastiest in presidential history and one that had little to do with pocketbook issues.

Opinion: How the media trivialize the election

In 1912, President William Howard Taft was also caught in a tsunami of personality, swamped when his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt tried to regain the "bully pulpit" of the White House. After an epic nominating battle, "Bull Moose" Roosevelt mounted a third-party challenge and the two men split the Republican vote, paving the way for Woodrow Wilson's victory. Taft's defeat after a single term had little to do with dollars and deficits -- except perhaps his charisma deficit.

More recently, Gerald Ford's 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter certainly had an economic element as inflation and recession mingled in "stagflation." But it was other issues -- including his pardon of Richard Nixon, a devastating debate gaffe over the Soviet Union, and the perception that Ford lacked legitimacy as an unelected president -- that were his undoing.

Legitimacy was also a factor after Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland, the popular winner in 1888, by winning the electoral vote that year. It was a campaign tainted by widespread charges of election fraud. Four years later, Cleveland regained the White House by ousting Harrison, whose personality never won over those convinced that the Republicans had "stolen" the election.

Assuming that the economy is the overwhelmingly decisive element in presidential elections relies on the "fallacy of a single cause." That is a black-and-white thinking style born of a desire for a simple narrative that tidily explains everything, when the real story is always far more complicated.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kenneth Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT