Reminder to 2020 Democrats: Incumbents do not just win, they get stronger

Reminder to 2020 Democrats: Incumbents do not just win, they get stronger
© Getty Images

Democrats have two precedents for beating Trump, but just one alternative: Scandal. Incumbent presidents are hard to beat, which is why Democrats have beaten only two since Hoover — Bush in 1992 and Ford in 1976. Lacking their primary tool from 1992, the economy, they must focus on 1976’s — scandal. This explains Democrat actions thus far and why they will only increase as November 2020 nears. 

Presidents seeking re-election usually win. Over the last century, only four have lost. Additionally, they usually win by bigger margins — only Obama’s fell. On average, elected presidents who sought re-election increased their popular vote share by 2.1 percent. This last point is important: Incumbents do not just win — they get stronger. 

Victories over incumbents are therefore long-shots, so Democrats’ two most recent warrant scrutiny. In 1992, they turned a slight 1991 economic downturn into the Clinton campaign mantra: “The economy, stupid.” A weak economy is by far the most effective weapon against an incumbent; all four who lost in the last 100 years had real GDP shrink within a year of seeking re-election.


Although larger than Bush’s, Gerald Ford’s economic problems were overshadowed by something bigger: Watergate and his pardon of Nixon. Ford’s presidency is unique in American history. The only president not elected president or vice president, his appointment as vice president, succession to president following Nixon’s resignation, and then quick pardon of Nixon tainted his tenure and likely cost him election. 

While important, the precedents hardly offer Democrats a roadmap for 2020 success.

This year’s econd quater GDP figure shows the economy is effectively doubly closed to Democrats as an election issue. Trump’s is strong and decidedly stronger than Obama’s. During Obama’s first 10 quarters, the GDP averaged 1.3 percent growth; even during his last 10, and well past the financial crisis, it averaged 2.2 percent. In Trump’s first 10, it has averaged 2.7 percent.

With the most effective election issue foreclosed, Democrats are left with just scandal. This is where they have made their biggest investment since before Trump took office. This has gone from hot outrage following their initial upset, to cold calculation that this is their only remaining alternative.

Yet, here too, Democrats have encountered more roadblock than roadmap. As the recent Mueller hearings in the House remind: Try as they might, Democrats have been unable to turn extensive Russia investigations into Watergate. Arguably, their persistence also has reached the risk of driving the public away from them.


Lacking the big cut that would have decapitated the administration, they have had to settle for death by a thousand smaller ones. If Democrats cannot make Trump criminal, then they will at least try to make him repugnant, bleeding away his credibility and preventing him from expanding his base beyond the minority who elected him.

As Democrats have discovered, the problem with scandal is twofold: Its existence depends on the eye of the beholder and even then, it is not a sure thing. Despite Watergate, which remains America’s biggest modern political scandal, Ford nearly won in 1976 — losing 48 to 50 percent in the popular vote and 240-297 in electoral votes.

Democrats face a real dilemma. Incumbent presidents like Trump disproportionately win second terms. More importantly, they do not do so by simply drafting behind their initial win totals: They get stronger. This last point is particularly crucial for Democrats: They can expect Trump will run stronger in 2020 than in 2016 — just as Clinton, who won with just 43 percent of the 1996 vote, ran substantially stronger in 1996.

Democrats have only two precedents for beating Trump but only one real chance. The most potentially potent weakness for an incumbent — the economy — is right now Trump’s greatest strength. That leaves them only scandal.

However here, they want a Watergate but lack it. Democrats’ remaining hope to counter the historical bump almost every other incumbent has received is to focus to the point of fixation on branding the President and his administration with every accusation they can grasp. Lacking the mountain, they must metastasize molehills.

As the election nears and incumbency’s historical momentum increasingly threatens, expect Democrats’ efforts to intensify. This especially will be true should their own nominee be less than an ideal candidate — a real possibility. While Democrats could, and will, never say it, their best — and perhaps, their only — chance is to win a race to the bottom to the White House. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.