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Opinion: One Term Presidents

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Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama won re-election with 332 electoral votes and 51 percent of the popular vote.  Cheers were heard from Athens to Columbus and throughout the rest of the country.  But were the results really a surprise?

In presidential history, only 10 incumbents have lost their re-election bids and only three of them have occurred since World War II. The most recent incumbent president to lose re-election was Republican George H.W. Bush who lost to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. President Clinton went on to serve two full terms as the country’s third youngest president.

In 1976, Gerald Ford, the first and only person to have served as both president and vice president without being elected by the electoral college, lost to an unknown Georgia peanut farmer by the name of Jimmy Carter.  Carter ran for re-election in 1980 but lost to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.

What kept these presidents from winning re-election?  According to George H.W. Bush’s White House biography, “Despite unprecedented popularity from this military and diplomatic triumph, Bush was unable to withstand discontent at home from a faltering economy, rising violence in inner cities and continued high deficit spending.”

Similarly, President Ford faced “the challenges of mastering inflation, reviving a depressed economy, solving chronic energy shortages, and trying to ensure world peace.” Ford was vice president during President Nixon’s administration and the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. The American public was highly discontented with the Vietnam War and government scandals, and clearly displayed their dissatisfaction at the voting polls.

For President Carter, re-election was lost due to a multitude of uncontrolled circumstances. He took office during a time of international stagflation that had not improved during his term. He also faced the energy crisis of the 1970s, the Iranian hostage of U.S. embassy staff, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. boycott of the summer olympics.

With President Obama facing similar economic and global challenges as his predecessors, what kept him from losing the election?  Why exactly do incumbent presidents almost always win re-election?

One primary reason is that they do not have to battle in primary elections and debates. This allows the incumbent president to start advertising much earlier than their opponent. While Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and others were battling for their shot at the presidency, President Obama had already starting running negative advertisements against the front-runner Mitt Romney.

There is also what political scientists refer to as “the incumbency effect.”  Incumbents generally have higher access to funding, can raise more money than their opponents, have prior experience in the position and have a familiar face to voters. Additionally, incumbents have already done the campaign process once; their campaign teams know what advertising techniques work, what speeches excite audiences and voters and what new, innovative methods can raise funds.

Is it possible to beat an incumbent?  Previous elections show that it is, but what about in modern society?  Today’s campaigns are much different in terms of SuperPACs (political action committees), 24-hour news channels and Internet technology that includes mass campaign emails and social networking.

Mitt Romney was probably the Republicans’ best chance to beat the president.  As a businessman, he and his campaign knew what it took to raise money.  In fact, Romney out spent his opponent by nearly a million dollars.  The governor also had an advantage because he ran against Sen. John McCain for the Republican candidacy in 2008.  Romney and his team saw what it took to run a successful campaign, as well as gaining name and face recognition among voters.

Could Romney have won this election?  In a matter of popular vote, the results were clearly not a landslide. Even battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, were very close with the president winning Florida by less than one percent and Ohio by less than two percent of the votes.

Republicans could discuss what Gov. Romney could have done differently to win the election—perhaps chose a different running mate or tried to relate more to the common citizen than tout his top one percent. But the truth is that Mitt Romney gave the best run that he could in an unlikely situation.

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