Trump was no Carter and Biden is no Reagan

Former President Trump was no Jimmy Carter and President Biden is no Ronald Reagan. The elections of four decades ago offer informative parallels for what is — and is not — now happening in the U.S. Comparing the two parties’ last presidential defeats, Republicans are in a much stronger position now than Democrats were then.

Defeats of elected presidential incumbents are rare. Since 1916, they have lost re-election only four times. It is worthwhile comparing each party’s last defeat — especially considering their shared elements. 

Carter emerged as a relatively unknown from the 1976 Democratic field amidst Watergate’s aftermath, the collapse of America’s interests in Southeast Asia, a recession-wracked economy and civil unrest that had raged intermittently for over a decade. Facing him was America’s only unelected president or vice president who, in addition to the nation’s problems, tangibly carried Richard Nixon’s too — in the form of President Gerald Ford’s pardon of the disgraced president.

In November of 1976, the non-establishment Carter beat the establishment Republican Ford in a race closer than most recall. Carter won the popular vote 50 to 48 percent and the electoral vote by 297 to 240. In November 2016, the non-establishment Trump beat the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, in a race that was closer still. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 46 to 48 percent, but he won the electoral vote 304 to 227.

Four years later, both Carter and Trump would lose re-election. Carter’s major accomplishment was his Mideast success in the Camp David Accords, but it was more than offset by a poor economy, an energy crisis and the Iranian hostage fiasco. Trump too had a significant, but largely ignored, Mideast peace victory and major tax reform legislation, but these were more than offset by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic crash.  

Carter’s 1980 defeat was crushing. He lost the popular vote to Reagan by 41 to 50.4 percent and the electoral vote 49-489. In the process, Democrats lost 12 Senate seats (and control of the chamber for the first time in decades) and 35 House seats. 

Trump’s 2020 defeat was comparatively close and, in retrospect, will likely be viewed as surprisingly so given arguably any president’s worst re-election year trifecta: impeachment, pandemic and economic collapse. He lost the popular vote by nearly 47 to 51 percent and the electoral vote 232 to 306.

Besides an interesting comparison, the two parties’ most recent presidential defeats show what an aberration Trump’s was. It also shows that Republicans emerged in surprisingly strong historical shape.

In 2020, Trump’s percentage of the popular vote increased — in addition to him winning over 11 million more votes. This increase is overlooked, but since 1916, he is the first defeated incumbent to see an increase, which is usually the hallmark of winning re-election.

Trump’s popular vote percentage loss was roughly half of Carter’s. Also, his electoral vote loss was a far cry from the landslide Carter suffered. While overshadowed by protracted contesting of the results, Trump’s margin of defeat in five states with 63 electoral votes (he needed to flip just 38 to win) were indeed tiny: Trump lost those five states by a combined 157,000 votes out of over 150 million cast nationwide.

Nor did Republicans suffer in Trump’s defeat like Democrats did in Carter’s. Republicans were actually net congressional gainers — losing three Senate seats and gaining 11 House seats. In 1980, Democrats lost a combined 47 Senate and House seats to Republicans’ net eight-seat gain in 2020.

Correspondingly, Biden’s win was nothing of the magnitude of Reagan’s — yet this was precisely what many had expected prior to November. Reagan also went on to consolidate the anti-Carter base, adding an enormous nine percentage points to his 1984 popular vote total and driving Walter Mondale’s vote percentage below even Carter’s.

Rather than consolidating the anti-Trump opposition that propelled him to the presidency, there are reasons Biden’s 2020 support could erode. In the Democratic primaries, Biden’s support was never overwhelming but accrued gradually as others’ first choices dropped out. 

In the general election, Biden benefited from factors that almost certainly will not be repeated. Most notable: A polarizing opponent, a pandemic and a depression-worthy economic blow. Biden also benefited from relaxed voting rules that led to a dramatic surge in voting that also favored Democrats. 

The upshot from Trump not being Carter and Biden not being Reagan is that Republicans are far better positioned than most realize. They greatly outperformed historical incumbent president loses: The last century’s previous three elected incumbents who lost were defeated by an average margin of 14.5 percentage points. They are also in an absolutely strong one for a congressional minority; Democrats hold a combined congressional majority of just 11votes — their lowest in the last century.  

Trump’s defeat is far closer to Ford’s than it was to Carter’s. Republicans should also recall that Ford’s defeat set the stage for Reagan’s landslide four years later. The worst thing that usually befalls a party is having their president lose re-election; for Republicans if this is the worst, it is really not that bad.

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.

Tags 2016 elections 2020 elections anti-Trump Biden victory Carter presidency Democrats Donald Trump Hillary Clinton incumbents Jimmy Carter Joe Biden presidential elections Republicans Ronald Reagan Trump defeat Trump Victory

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