The year 2016 was the 17th “post-incumbent” presidential election in U.S. history: an election with no incumbent on the ballot following the reelection of an incumbent. For more than two centuries, the overwhelming trend in those elections — in the popular and electoral vote, nationally and in the battleground states — has been a sharp snap back toward the party out of power. While Donald Trump’s accomplishment in breaking the “blue wall” of the Midwest after two consecutive Democratic victories might look impressive, he actually had — by a key measurement — the worst performance by a challenger in a post-incumbent election in 200 years. The only one worse was by a party that ceased to exist after the election.
Trump has a political opportunity: He won without a significant number of voters who were open to conventional Republicans, and he could fuse a strong coalition for reelection if he wins them over by his performance in office. But the historic weakness of his victory should be a humbling reminder that he has not yet remade the American electorate. He owes his presidency primarily to external historic trends and the failure of the Democrats to build a lasting coalition.
The Enduring Two-Party System
The seesaw of control of the presidency between the two major parties matters because of the design of the American political system. With very limited exceptions, American presidential elections have always been a contest of strength between the two major parties (Federalists and Democrats from 1796 to 1816, Whigs and Democrats from 1828 to 1852, Republicans and Democrats from 1856 to the present). The exceptions illustrate the strength of this tendency:
From 1820 to 1824, between the collapse of the Federalist party and the rise of the Whigs, the 1824 election was still effectively between Andrew Jackson representing the Democrats and John Quincy Adams representing the faction that would become the Whigs.
In 1860, the Democrats broke into two regional factions on the eve of the Civil War, but only for one election, and in most of the country, one or the other Democrat got most of the party’s votes.
In 1912, former two-term Republican president Teddy Roosevelt split the Republicans and ran ahead of sitting Republican president William Howard Taft. But, again, the party reunited by 1916.
In short, the two-party system has proven remarkably durable in three ways. One: Parties that are down and out of power, even after catastrophic landslide losses like those in 1984, 1972, 1964, 1936, and 1920, often rise again surprisingly quickly, sometimes in time to win the next election. Two: On those two rare occasions when a major party ceased to exist, it was replaced before long, represented most of the same voters, and quickly acquired the legitimacy to contend for the presidency. And three: Third-party candidates never matter in American elections except as spoilers or placeholders for voters who might otherwise stay home.
2016 illustrated this resilience once again: Trump and Hillary finished first and second in every state, even Utah, where Evan McMullin cleared 20 percent of the vote as a pure protest. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein both gained votes from their 2012 campaigns, but mostly due to voter disenchantment with the existing options. Trump ran what amounted to a third-party campaign, but he did so in the traditional American fashion of capturing control of one party. And so, as unconventional as Trump was, he was the receptacle for the votes of most partisan Republicans as well as many voters who were open to a cyclical swing away from the party in power. The gravitational forces of the two-party system proved larger than Trump himself.
In studying the historical ebb and flow of elections, the best measurement is thus to look at each party’s share of the two-party vote, rather than its percentage of the overall popular vote. Third-party votes matter only to the extent that bleeding support to a third party make you lose to the other major party, so while the overall vote matters, excluding third-party votes helps isolate the real battle for control. The two-party vote is the measurement I used when I first studied this issue back in September 2014 to predict that history was against Democrats in 2016, and I use it here to update that study now that we have final results from 2016.
Twenty-two times in U.S. history, voters have reelected a sitting president. Seventeen of those elections were followed by true post-incumbent elections: There was no incumbent on the ballot. The other five were followed by another incumbent election: Teddy Roosevelt’s succeeding William McKinley in 1904; FDR’s third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944 and the reelection of his successor, Harry Truman, in 1948; and Gerald Ford’s succeeding Richard Nixon in 1976. In the charts below, I also isolate the “modern” post-incumbent elections, i.e., those since the Civil War and the formation of the Republican party, creating the two-party system in the form that survives today. There are eleven post-incumbent elections in that period.
The 17 true post-incumbent elections have displayed a remarkably consistent pattern, one that has been echoed (if less dramatically) in the other five. The party in power always, always sees its support shrink as the tensions of governing mount and the advantage of incumbency disappears. The Democrats of 2016 were surprised to find that this immutable law of political gravity applied to them, too.
The columns on the left track the two-party national popular vote; on the right, the overall popular vote. (And before you object: Yes, we’ll get to measurements other than the national popular vote later, but in most cases, the national popular vote drives the result.) The yellow columns represent the decline in the party in power’s support in those elections; only 1816 and 1904 buck the trend in the two-party vote, only those two and 1928 buck the trend in the overall popular vote (there had been a significant third-party vote in 1924). I’ve broken down the averages by party, by true post-incumbent elections, and by modern elections.
As you can see, the trend is a powerful one: Historically, the electorate has swung almost 10 points toward the party out of power. Even in modern, post–Civil War history, the swing in post-incumbent elections averages 6.68 points in the two-party vote and 5.95 points in the popular vote. And remember, 6.68 points is only one side of the coin, since those points go to the other side — it’s enough to close a gap of more than 13 points. Even including the post-incumbent elections in which another incumbent was running, it’s still an average swing of more than 8 points, and more than five points in modern times.
In the two-party vote, the only true post-incumbent election to buck the trend was 1816. In 1812, President James Madison and the opposition Federalists bet everything on their stances on the War of 1812. The closely divided election of that year was held after the outbreak of war but long before its outcome was known. The war ended in a draw, but at its conclusion, it was hugely popular, seen widely as a vindication of American independence from England. The Federalists were permanently discredited. After James Monroe, who had been secretary of state and secretary of war during the war, crushed Rufus King and the Federalists to succeed Madison in 1816, the Federalists never fielded another presidential candidate.
The only election since with less than a 4-point swing was 1868, when the party in power (the Republican party) was running a national hero (Ulysses S. Grant) and the sitting incumbent (Andrew Johnson) was actually a Democrat who had been impeached and almost removed from office by the Republican Congress. As a result, Grant could run as the de facto opposition. Oh, and the Democrats’ geographic base was under military occupation by Grant, after having gone to war against the national government. The Republicans still dropped 2.38 points in the two-party vote.
A candidate with nothing but the historical wind at his back would have fared far better than Trump.
So, for 200 years, every opposing candidate in a true post-incumbent election has pulled the two-party vote at least 2 points in their direction. Every election, that is, until this one. Trump benefited from a shift of just 0.85 points in the two-party vote, the worst since Rufus King in 1816. Even FDR’s opponents in 1940 and 1944 did better. A candidate with nothing but the historical wind at his back would have fared far better than Trump. Only his singular underperformance of the historic trend kept this race even close.
That’s true even though the really enormous swings in the electorate that were common between 1952 and 1980 have been more modest over the past four decades, as voters have sorted themselves into partisan bases that match their ideology more closely. Moreover, Trump had another trend going for him: The tendency for majority reelection coalitions to shatter has traditionally been more pronounced when it’s the Democrats in power, as they were at the beginning of 2016. There are a variety of reasons for this: Among other things, progressive voters are more easily disenchanted with the burdens of governance and national security (see: 1920, 1968, 2000, 2016). We see that in the defections that diminished Hillary Clinton’s overall showing in the popular vote. As I have previously detailed, Hillary won a popular majority in just 13 states, the fewest of any major-party candidate since Bob Dole, and she was more dependent on the voters of a single state (California, in her case) than any candidate since Tom Dewey in 1944. With a generic Republican nominee, we’d have expected more of those losses to be coupled with gains for the GOP ticket.
Ranking the same chart by how much the post-incumbent challengers gained in the two-party vote (including the ones who faced incumbents) brings Trump’s weakness in sharp relief.
Trump is nearly dead last, above only King and Alton B. Parker, the hapless New York Democrat who faced Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 after TR had three years as the president to set his own course independent of William McKinley. Even if we look at the popular vote rather than the two-party vote, we see that few challengers have taken less out of the governing coalition than Trump.
Of course, American presidential elections aren’t decided by the national popular vote, as anyone who has paid attention to the 2016 election returns could tell you. But Trump’s performance in the Electoral College, as smashing as it looks on paper after two big Obama wins in the Electoral College and the comparatively modest wins by George W. Bush, isn’t actually all that impressive either, by historical standards.
The Electoral College is a force multiplier for even small shifts in the popular vote, so the historical average of a 24 percent shift in post-incumbent elections with no incumbent on the ballot is well ahead of Trump’s yield of just under 19 percent. Again, ranked either by the two-party or overall electoral-vote deterioration of the party in power, Trump is pretty low on the list; and by either measure, everyone below him lost the election.
The central political fact of the past eight years is that Obama was elected with a coalition that was never really his.
So why was Trump able to win at all? Because Barack Obama failed to expand his coalition in office and left his successor with too small a margin for error to survive even the weakest post-incumbent swing in two centuries. The central political fact of the past eight years is that Obama was elected with a coalition that was never really his. Disenchantment with George W. Bush, the natural post-incumbent swing from Bush to Obama, the 2008 financial crisis — all of these things deposited a big pile of votes in Obama’s lap. That doesn’t mean Obama was an illegitimate president; to the extent his election was an accident of history, a good deal of the same could be said of almost any American president. Candidates matter at the margins, and the margins can matter a lot. But fundamentally, whether they ride the post-incumbent wave into office (as Eisenhower or George W. Bush did) or defeat a failing incumbent (like Reagan or FDR), almost every new president wins on the strength of voters who aren’t totally on board and who have decided to vote for change and hope for the best. It’s the job of the new president to capitalize on that.
Obama never did. He rapidly alienated many of the voters who had broken to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, resulting in catastrophic losses for his party down-ticket in 2010, 2014, and 2016. That brought the GOP back from its weakest position in decades to its strongest in 80 years. Two things saved Obama in 2012: heavy turnout from his core demographic base, and the residual support of just enough white working-class Midwesterners for the incumbent. But of the 22 American presidents to win reelection, only five have lost support in the two-party vote, the popular vote, and the Electoral College; three of those five were FDR and Truman wringing the last victories out of the enormous majority FDR built between 1932 and 1936. Another was Madison, elected with two-thirds of the popular vote and having just started a war that some feared would lead to the nation’s extinction. And the fifth, the only one not working from a starting point in the sixties, is Obama.
Yes, Hillary Clinton was a fatally flawed candidate. And yes, Donald Trump was more successful at capitalizing on the opportunity presented by 2016 than many of us had anticipated. But history tells us that Republicans were highly likely to erode the Obama 2012 vote. The real reason Trump won, more than any other, is that Obama left Hillary with no breathing room for anything to go wrong.
In Part 2 tomorrow: Did Trump do unusually well in the battleground states?
— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and an NRO contributing columnist.