Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Oh, I'm Going to Hate This In About Four Years

After Hoover was defeated in 1932, the next incumbent to lose in a general election was Ford, in 1976, followed in short order by Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992. Add in Johnson in 1968, and incumbents are beaten all the time!

But now, with a run of three presidents who were successfully re-elected, get ready for it: you're going to be hearing a lot about how incumbent presidents can't lose under today's conditions. Here's a preview from Tom Edsall, who attributes this effect to campaign finance:
The ability of an unchallenged incumbent president to flood the airwaves during the summer of an election year, combined with the advantage an incumbent has raising general election money a full two years or more before the election, has significant consequences. Early money is crucial to the long-haul development and testing of high-tech voter contact research techniques. An incumbent’s built-in edge over out-party challengers, who must first spend millions to win the nomination, is now so strong that it almost guarantees two-term presidents.
This, along with some stuff about how economic conditions in 2012 should have made for an easy Republican victory -- which ignores both the evidence of the political science modelers and the common sense intuition that maybe voters remembered when the crash happened.

Now, as it happens, incumbents do win often -- not just for re-election to the White House, but for all offices at all times. After all, the one thing we know about incumbents is that they won! Usually, with basically the same electorate, or at least close to the same electorate, that they are facing in the next election. Forget about everything else, and just focus on that, and you'll expect them to win the next time. Indeed, there's really something wrong if they don't win more often than they lose; it would indicate to voters are constantly changing their minds, and that's not a positive sign.

I do think that the expectation to the contrary is based on a good government fantasy that every election should begin -- for every voter -- from square one, with voters carefully studying the positions on public policy issues from each candidate from scratch and deciding their vote based on an impartial calculus of exactly which candidate is best on those issues. Which is neither what happens in the real world or, I'd argue, would be any better than what actually does happen in the real world. (Worse? Well, I'm open to and willing to defend most methods for determining one's vote, but it wouldn't be a way I'd recommend).

I may say more later about the campaign finance specific stuff in Edsall's post, but look: this is coming. You get three straight re-elections, and people are going to believe that it's inevitable, and throw their favorite causes at this supposed effect. But it isn't inevitable. It's just worked out that way.

12 comments:

  1. It seems to me that you should not have to hate this for nearly eight years (i.e., the next time an incumbent may run).

    But yes, I'm old enough to remember being told that today's modern problems are so complex and unsolvable that no incumbent president could possibly be reelected.

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    1. I'm expecting that the worst of it will be in 2017-2018 -- close enough that everyone will be thinking about 2020, but not close enough for people to focus on the actual election outlook. You'll still have a fair amount of it in 2019, but then by the time the election gets close it should drop away, especially if it's a close election or if the president is losing.

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    2. Wow, I really thought Edsall would at least understand the poli-sci models better than this.

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    3. Jonanthan--even worse will be "the GOP will never win another presidential election unless it drastically changes its ways" meme if the Democrats win--even fairly narrowly--in 2016. (I doubt that there will be quite the equivalent in gloom about the Democrats if they lose--it will be pointed out that it's hard for a party to win three presidential elections in a row, etc.)

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    4. Yes, but I'm already annoyed by that. This is going to be a new one.

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  2. I wonder how much ink was wasted in 1948/49 about how Democrats would hold the White House until the end of time, as Dewey couldn't even beat Truman in an election that so clearly favored Republicans.

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    1. There was a lot less ink back then!

      I mean, even literal ink. Let alone three cable nets, the blogs, the rest of it.

      (Maybe op-ed pages? I'd have to look up when they started.)

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    2. They had these things called "columnists" then. You know, like bloggers, except that they didn't link to other people. They wrote for these things called "newspapers" of which any fair-sized city had a few.

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    3. Columnists go back...I'm not sure, but certainly pre-war.

      Op-ed pages, though, not really. The NYT op-ed page was born in 1970

      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2010/09/the_oped_pages_back_pages.html

      I'm not sure how many opinion columns per week the Times or the other top papers were running in 1948, but it was far less than there are now. Granted, there were more newspapers. I also don't know the history of syndication and local columnists, but my guess is that there was a lot less in any newspaper, and probably less in most cities overall, in the 1940s than today.

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  3. Would the '52 election count as an example of an incumbent losing if you include the '68 election? To me they seem the same.

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    1. Very similar. Probably possible to distinguish them, but very similar.

      (Damn it's tough having smart, well-informed readers. I did think of that when I wrote the first paragraph, but tried to glide over it to keep it short...)

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  4. "the common sense intuition that maybe voters remembered when the crash happened"

    Maybe one reason the pundits missed this is that said memory didn't seem to help the Democrats much in 2010. (Yes, I know midterm electorates differ from presidential election year electorates, but OTOH it was also two years further removed from the crash, and it seemed logical to assume that the Democrats would be *less* able to blame a somewhat poor economic situation on it.)

    I still maintain that Obama did slightly better than fundamentals would have indicated in 2012 (note that this is *not* the same thing as saying he "should" have lost, only that one would have expectted the race to be closer) and that some of the campaign-related stuff whose significance some poltical scientists like to dismiss may have played a role.

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