Yes, this is a strange political year. But that doesn’t mean we are immune from the laws of political history. As such, the precedents give the president an advantage. Not overwhelming and not one that will guarantee reelection. But one that will matter in a tight race.
In the last 100 years, barring death in office, a few presidents have been one termers. When they have it was usually because of extraordinary circumstances. Cal Coolidge, one of our greatest presidents, was only elected once, but served out much of Warren Harding’s term after Harding died in office. Herbert Hoover had the Depression. Harry Truman was only elected once, but served out most of Roosevelt’s last term after Franklin Roosevelt died. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam. Ford was never elected, but was elevated from veep after the Nixon resignation. Carter was tossed out after one term because he was an abysmally bad president in almost every way. George Bush the Elder lost after one term because of Ross Perot. And that was the last incumbent, in 1992, not to get reelected. That means Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush the Younger, and Obama all won reelection, the last three in the last 25 years.
So modern historical tide sides with reelection. Then there’s the power of the presidency. As we’ll see during Thursday’s debate when the subject comes around to foreign policy, the presidency is arrayed in the full might and glamour of the Leader of the Free World and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on the planet. One word from the American president and an entire country can become a charred lifeless hole in Asia Minor. A nod of the presidential head and an American carrier battle group can appear off your shore. That’s heady stuff and the sheer glory of it can sway votes.
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A challenger has politics and maybe a personal military record to soak up some reflected glory. But neither of these guys served their nation in uniform (a fact one wishes would bar anyone from the Senate and the presidency. But that is an entirely different article). Thus the shine of polished spurs goes to the guy who has been Commander-in-Chief. Advantage Trump.
A sitting president can deploy billions of dollars in projects, pork barrel boondoggles, and spending to grease his campaign wheels. A challenger has nowhere near that kind of pull. But a challenger is bright, shiny, and new, to an extent. Both come with baggage. However, a president comes with more. And not just this president.
The office demands hard decisions that are going to upset political enemies and some parts of the voting public. They will want payback at the ballot box. So history mitigates for the incumbent, but not to the point of assured reelection. Only a smart candidate and a smarter campaign team can do that.