Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump. These are the seven elected presidents who failed to win reelection to a second consecutive term since the Civil War. Will Joe Biden join that list?
No. Well, probably not.
Biden’s record does not mirror those of his predecessors, who were defeated after one full term. For Biden to lose, either the American economy has to tank, or his advanced age has to become so important to voters that it overwhelms all the other factors that typically determine presidential elections.
Typically, what does it take for an incumbent president to lose?
Our three earliest post-Civil War examples are fluky. In the late 19th century, presidential politics were primarily divided by the Mason-Dixon line, with Republicans strong in the North and Democrats confined to the South. Cleveland, who represented upstate New York, was the only Democrat of his era to pick the Electoral College lock, despite never cracking 50 percent of the popular vote. He barely won in 1884, scratching out a popular vote margin of 0.5 percent and carrying only 20 of 38 states. In 1888, Cleveland managed to expand his popular vote margin to 0.8 percent. However, having riled up protectionist northerners over his tariff reform proposals, two critical swing states slipped out of Cleveland’s grasp: Indiana and his own New York. Four years later, in 1888, Harrison misplayed the tariff issue, jacking up prices so high that the persistent Cleveland could mount an unprecedented comeback, taking back New York and Indiana, and flipping a few more.
In 1912, the ideologically incoherent Republican Party was shattered when former President Theodore Roosevelt challenged Taft, his hand-picked successor. When Roosevelt was denied the Republican nomination by conservative delegates loyal to Taft, he stormed out of the convention and joined the new Progressive Party. With the GOP divided, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was able to slip into the White House with just 42 percent of the popular vote.
The four subsequent examples of one-term elected incumbents have a far more distinguishable common thread: severe economic distress.
Hoover was throttled by the Great Depression, which began and worsened during his term. In 1980, Carter suffered a devastating mix of recession, inflation, and high unemployment branded as “stagflation.” (Then there was the Iranian hostage crisis.) Bush’s mid-term recession technically ended before the 1992 general election campaign began in earnest but was followed by a “jobless recovery.” The unemployment rate rose from 5.4 percent in mid-1990 to 7.7 percent in July 1992, only slightly edging down to 7.3 percent before Election Day. Trump—a chronically unpopular figure whose initial election lacked a popular vote majority and was the first president to never earn an average job approval above 50 percent during his presidency— in 2020 faced an economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three out of these four cases involved unusually calamitous conditions. The fourth, Bush, involved a fairly run-of-the-mill, if ill-timed, recession. But the resulting political challenge was compounded by Bush’s disinterest in a legislative response, inability to convey public empathy, and damaged credibility with the conservative base—drawing far-right pundit Pat Buchanan into the GOP presidential primary—after breaking his 1988 pledge not to raise taxes.
Historical evidence suggests that a lot must go wrong for an elected incumbent president to lose.
Biden’s economic performance does not resemble any of these examples. Gross domestic product has grown approximately three percent during each of the last two quarters (following two quarters of negative growth at the beginning of 2022 but strong growth in 2021). Unemployment hit a record low of 3.4 percent in February and is only a tick higher in March.
Some forecasters see negative growth for 2023, such as Bloomberg’s in-house economists, who project, “Our baseline outlook is for an impending recession—and we see no shortage of additional downside risks.” But other presidents who have been reelected weathered periods of contraction during their first terms. These include Dwight Eisenhower (late 1953 and early 1954, as well as the first and third quarters of 1956), Richard Nixon (parts of 1969 and 1970), Ronald Reagan (late 1981 and much of 1982), and Barack Obama (first and third quarters of 2011, not to the mention the harrowing declines of the Great Recession in 2009). Eisenhower, Nixon, and George W. Bush each had higher unemployment rates when they faced voters for the second time than when they began their presidencies. Despite the imperfections, these presidents could still credibly claim that by Election Day that voters were better off economically than they were four years earlier.
The Biden record does have a glaring weak spot: inflation, which peaked last June at 9.1 percent (meaning prices in June 2022 were 9.1 percent higher than in June 2021). But thanks to the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases and the restoration of global supply chains, that inflation metric as of March has declined to 5 percent. The Fed’s rate hikes may contribute to weak or negative GDP growth this year. However, if inflation is contained, prompting the Fed to lower interest rates by early next year, healthy growth could resume just in time. As Bloomberg’s Josh Wingrove noted in response to the recession forecast, “If a recession hits in coming months, the economy could be back on the upswing by the middle of next year. The conventional wisdom is that’s when voters start making up their minds.”
An interesting but often overlooked economic metric is real disposable income per capita. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, recently told Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post that that statistic “is the most comprehensive consistent measure of how well Americans are doing from a government source. It accounts for all income, and it is after-tax and appropriately accounts for inflation.” Kessler reported that for Biden’s presidency real disposable income is “basically flat,” which is not a selling point. That number typically shows at least some growth over a presidential term. Going back 50 years, the weakest real disposable income performance by a first-term president is George H. W. Bush’s, with 2.7 percent growth. Biden’s growth, to date, is negative 0.2 percent. Not good!
But there is a giant silver lining. Since inflation has dropped from its June 2022 peak, real disposable income is up a healthy 4 percent. Biden will be in fine shape if inflation continues to ease while wages and other income rise.
And let’s not forget, even with elevated rates of inflation and flat real disposable income, Biden and his Democrats pulled off a minor midterm miracle last year, gaining a Senate seat while only losing nine House seats. Any voter frustration with the Democrats’ handling of the economy and crime was mitigated by voter disgust for the Republican rollback of abortion rights and undermining the integrity of our elections. The midterm results suggest that voters are not angry about the economy to such a degree that they deprioritize all other concerns.
Much has been made about Biden’s limp job approval rating, which in both the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics average has been hovering around 43 percent since January. But mid-term poll doldrums are not predictive. In the latter part of Obama’s third year, he also languished around 43 percent. In Gallup polling, Bill Clinton sunk as low as 37 percent in his first year and 39 in his second. Clinton was mainly stuck in the mid-to-upper 40s for his third year until his end-of-year budget showdown with House Speaker Newt Gingrich propelled him back into the 50s. Reagan suffered a long stretch when he was below 50 percent, through his second year and almost the whole of his third, falling as low as 35 percent at the beginning of 1983. (He rebounded after, of all things, the invasion of Grenada.) All three, of course, were reelected.
Moreover, despite Biden’s underwater job approval numbers, he is holding his own in general election trial heats. According to the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics databases, 11 polls were taken in April testing Biden against both Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. When averaging the margins in these polls, Biden holds a slight edge over both: a barely noticeable 0.05 percentage points against Trump and 1.7 versus DeSantis. (This undercuts the conventional wisdom that DeSantis is demonstrably more electable than Trump.)
Of course, such statistically insignificant margins are no guarantee of victory. But barring an economic calamity, devastating international crisis, or colossal blunder, we should expect Biden to expand that margin as we get closer to Election Day. (Clinton was knotted up with Bob Dole in mid-1995, as Obama was with Mitt Romney in mid-to-late-2011. George W. Bush didn’t pull away from John Kerry until the fall of 2004. Reagan was trailing Walter Mondale until Grenada.)
Having said all that, we have an X-factor in the 2024 race: age. We know from polling, focus groups, and probably any conversation that you’ve had about politics with your friends and family, that many voters are concerned about Biden’s octogenarian status. Yet we don’t know if that translates into lost points on Election Day. However, considering that Biden is competitive in trial heats despite his job approval numbers and currently performs a little better against the 44-year-old DeSantis than the 76-year-old Trump, we have reason to assume that when faced with a binary choice, age won’t turn an otherwise Democratic-leaning voter into a Republican voter.
We can’t know if the bottom might fall out of the economy. Nor can we know if Biden will say or do something so jarring that voters question his capacity to do the job. But it will take a hot mess to prevent Biden in 2024 from being able to claim we are better off than four years ago.