Baltimore's Fifth Regiment Armory is a good place to start for some perspective on the recent presidential election. Within its gray stone walls, the tumultuous 1912 Democratic National Convention played a major scene in the political drama that resulted in an incumbent president not only being defeated, but finishing third in the national election. The dynamics that led to such an extraordinary result are lessons that apply to any analysis of an election involving a sitting president.
We are beset daily with opinions as to why Mitt Romney managed to win only one swing state against an incumbent presiding over an underwhelming economy. Many analysts point to the failure of the Republican Party to come to terms with the nation's shifting demographics. Others go so far as to bemoan a perceived rejection of traditional free enterprise values in favor of an entitlement mentality. All of these theories, however, could benefit from a dose of history.
Of the 30 presidential elections during the last 120 years, 19 involved a sitting president nominated by his party to continue in office, including four instances in which a vice president had succeeded to office during the prior term. In only five of those elections was the incumbent defeated in the general election, and each of those cases — unlike this year's election — shared several of certain factors that are instructive as to the circumstances under which the electorate will turn a sitting president out of office. These include an imperiled economy, a crisis detrimental to trust and confidence, highly charged issues, the dominating presence of a strong personality, a challenge for the nomination, and/or a third-party candidacy. Also, in each case, there was either a compellingly stated message of reform or circumstances that provided a clear recognition that reform was needed.
In the election of 1912, issues included the state of the Progressive agenda that had been promoted by former President Theodore Roosevelt and mostly abandoned by President William Howard Taft, along with the matters of trusts, tariffs and women's suffrage. Roosevelt, the strongest political personality of his day, challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, and after his delegates were denied credentials at the national convention in Chicago, he and his supporters bolted and formed a third party. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Woodrow Wilson won the Democratic nomination on the 46th ballot, announcing an aggressive agenda dubbed the New Freedom. Roosevelt countered with an equally well-articulated Progressive program known as the New Nationalism. The Republican split led to Wilson's election, with Roosevelt's third-party candidacy finishing second.
The other defeats of incumbents involved similarly unique circumstances. In 1932, the nation was in the midst of the economic and social devastation of the Great Depression. The New Deal platform of the ever-optimistic and jaunty Franklin Roosevelt resonated in the trouncing of Herbert Hoover.
The election of 1976 was dominated by a polarizing personality who was not even a candidate. Richard Nixon's resignation propelled Gerald Ford into office, and the dark specter of the Watergate scandal loomed large over the country. That Mr. Ford had become vice president only because Spiro Agnew had also resigned in disgrace did not help, nor did Ronald Reagan's challenge for the nomination. Jimmy Carter claimed the mantle of an outsider and reformer and rode the prevalent distrust of Washington to a narrow victory.
Four years later, Mr. Carter found himself besieged by inflation, the lingering effects of the Arab oil embargo, and the nightly broadcast images of Americans held captive in Iran. After beating back a formidable primary challenge by Ted Kennedy, he faced the optimistic and buoyant Ronald Reagan, along with John Anderson's independent campaign. Reagan's confidently stated pledge to reinvigorate the American economy and strengthen its military made Mr. Carter a one-term president.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush, presiding over a sluggish economy, faced the hard-charging Bill Clinton, who promised fundamental changes in the nation's economy and an alteration of priorities. Mr. Clinton's charisma and message that he represented change, coupled with a third-party candidacy in the person of Ross Perot, helped ensure Mr. Bush's defeat.
This year, Mitt Romney talked about change but failed to offer a clear agenda that represented a recognizable break with the past. Most informed voters surely recognized that they had heard the promised magical benefits of tax cuts before. In fact, the policy was very recently in place during the administration of George W. Bush, and helped turn a $290 billion budget surplus into a $455 billion deficit, while nearly doubling the national debt from $5.6 trillion to more than $10 trillion. Mr. Romney's assertions that he would reduce spending and close tax loopholes (without meaningful specifics), along with promised defense increases, prevented his ever gaining the credible high ground in the economic conversation. Bill Clinton's retort that "it's arithmetic" probably rang truer with voters than anything offered by the billions of dollars spent on political advertising.
While this year presented an economy still in slow recovery from its 2008 collapse, the other factors present in past presidential defeats were clearly lacking. President Barack Obama had no primary challenge, nor was there any thorny third-party candidacy. He was spared blame for the economic collapse, while being able to take credit for slow but undeniable growth. No charismatic personality dominated the agenda, and the challenger never offered an inspirational program of truly new ideas that signaled a compelling reason for change.
These facts, more than any theories about the rise to prominence of some entitlement-dependent mass bent on turning America into Europe, provide the basis for why the country decided to stay with the guy in office.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is email@example.com.
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