Incumbency's advantage could trump Democrats in 2020

Incumbency's advantage could trump Democrats in 2020

Beneath 2020’s political surface lurks President Trump’s underestimated incumbency advantage. History shows its potential potency in ten months. This makes Democrats’ task doubly difficult: They must not just beat Trump where he stands now, but where incumbency could lift him. 

Incumbent presidents usually win. Since 1912, elected incumbents are 11-3 when seeking a second term. On average, the 14 saw their popular vote percentage increase 3.4 percentage points from their first election.  

Certainly, the economy is a factor. The three defeated presidents (Hoover, Carter and Bush I) all had economy troubles (annual GDP shrank within a year of re-election). Their popular vote percentage fell by an average of 14.5 percentage points. Dropping these three, incumbency is even more powerful: The 11 winners’ popular vote share rose by an average of 5.3 percentage points. 


To understand the general trend, look at our last general election that featured an incumbent president. Entering 2012, Obama appeared anything but a sure thing. ObamaCare was not particularly popular, the economy was not particularly good; he had raised taxes, and Democrats had lost the House in 2010’s landslide.  

According to Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll on January 3, 2012, Obama’s overall approval/disapproval was negative – 46/53 percent – with a strong approval/disapproval of 22/42 percent. He elicited strong feelings in two-thirds of respondents, and they were almost two-to-one negative. Hardly auspicious. 

Over the next ten months, things would change dramatically. Against an establishment Republican, Obama handily won re-election 50.9 to 47.1 percent.   

Where did such improvement arise?  Look again at Rasmussen’s data at the election: It clearly comes from the heavy break toward the president among voters without strong feelings. 

Averaging Rasmussen’s daily polls released on election day 2012 and the following day, Obama had an overall 51/48.5 percent approval/disapproval rating — extremely close to the actual outcome. His “strong” rating was 34.5/41.5 percent approval/disapproval — again, decidedly negative. What propelled Obama to his positive overall rating was for non-strong respondents to break 16.5/7 percent for him — better than two-to-one.   


In Obama’s case, that was his incumbent advantage. The movement of voters without a strong preference – either partisan or personal – toward the president. It more than offset his pronounced liability with voters who had strong feelings about him.  

Looking at these numbers, it is possible to explain the ebb and flow between the midterms and presidential elections. In midterms, when the president’s party usually loses seats, “strong feeling” voters dominate. In both the midterms and presidential elections, Obama was decidedly negative among these voters. But because they dominated in the midterms, Democrats lost big in 2010.

In a general election, when a broader electorate comes to the polls, the “strong feeling” voters were more than offset by the “nonstrong” breaking decisively toward the incumbent. Hence, despite Obama’s continued deficit among “strong feeling” voters, he was able to win handily. 

Past numbers should scare today’s Democrats. President Trump is in a stronger position now than Obama was then. It goes beyond his Rasmussen approval numbers being better at a point in time (on Jan. 3, Trump was even on overall job approval, while Obama was -4 percent; on strong feelings, Trump was -7 and Obama was -20) though they have been recently. 

President Trump’s economy is stronger. He has recent high-profile trade wins with Canada and Mexico, China, and Japan. For his base, he has a tax cut, wall funding and judicial confirmations. Even impeachment will be resolved, one way or another – either Senate acquittal or, if the House continues to withhold impeachment articles, it becomes old news – to the president’s benefit.  

Further, Democrats are in a worse position now than Republicans were then. In 2012, Republicans nominated a middle-of-the-road establishment Republican, who united the party (even if he lost the election). Democrats appear far from doing the same.

Today’s Democrats are fractured at best. Its majority is leaning hard to the left, while establishment Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden on hecklers: 'This is not a Trump rally. Let 'em holler' MORE is polling less than one-third support within the party. The nomination fight does not look like it will end quickly, and could leave the party no less fractured than it is now.

Democrats find themselves in a political pickle. They are facing a stronger incumbent now than the one they had in 2012. Their incumbent handily beat a challenger who was more mainstream than the one they are likely to nominate in 2020. 

The incumbent advantage is real, and it is big. Right now, Democrats are on the wrong side of it. Yet, Democrats appear to be trying to do everything they can to increase it for President Trump.   

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.