Donald Trump is officially a one-term president, the first to fail a reelection bid in nearly 30 years. But history shows his loss isn’t surprising, given the circumstances.
One-term presidents used to be a lot more common. Take the period between 1837 (when Andrew Jackson’s second term ended) and 1860, for example — no president served more than one term. And between 1900 and 1932, we had seven presidents, only one of whom served two full terms. (Some died in office, some lost reelection, and some chose not to run for another term.) But in the modern era, presidents have increasingly left office because term limits prevent them from staying, not because the voters have turned them out.
Trump is setting a dangerous precedent for American democracy
One of the major questions about one-term presidents is whether their fates are shaped mainly by their actions and political failings, or primarily by conditions beyond their control. This is, of course, a tricky question to answer, as there are some traits one-term presidents seem to share — a bad economy, poor leadership — but it’s hard to know how much any of those factors are actually within their control.
Let’s start with the biggest factor that ties one-term presidents together: a major economic downturn. Herbert Hoover, who was president at the start of the Great Depression, is perhaps the most extreme example. It’s estimated that unemployment during the Great Depression was around 20 percent or more, and thousands of banks failed. And although Hoover did take measures to address the crisis, his view that voluntary programs were preferable to direct government involvement in stabilizing the economy ultimately cost him. More recent presidents like Jimmy Carter, who was in office during a less severe but still serious economic recession, also paid for it at the ballot box. Similarly, the same inflation problems that plagued Carter had previously dragged down Gerald Ford, who had lost to Carter four years earlier. And the rising unemployment in 1992 quickly eroded support for George H.W. Bush in that year’s election, even after he had been quite popular throughout his presidency.
The importance of the economy to a president’s reelection bid also hinges on timing. When a crisis or a recession hits in a reelection year, that tends to spell trouble. In contrast, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower both weathered recessions during their time in office, but those downturns hit a few years before they faced reelection.
So while the coronavirus pandemic was (and is) an extraordinary event, the economic crisis it produced actually falls somewhat in line with the situations faced by other one-term presidents. It’s true that many voters still had a positive opinion of Trump’s handling of the economy even amid this year’s massive layoffs, but public opinion data also suggested that voters were particularly worried about the pandemic. Furthemore, they generally thought Trump had done a poor job of handling it, making it difficult to untangle the public health crisis from the economic downturn it caused.
There’s also the question of how a president leads in a moment of crisis, which has been the downfall of many a one-term president. For example, to cite Hoover again, popular memory is especially unforgiving of his handling of the Great Depression. At the time, his name was attached to camps built by unemployed Americans as shelter when they lost their homes, and a “Hoover flag” referred to an empty pocket turned inside out. Of course, Hoover is an extreme example, but other one-term presidents have experienced a similar fate, earning reputations for being hapless and bumbling in the face of serious challenges. This has certainly been the case with Trump, who is thought to have mismanaged the pandemic and, by downplaying the severity of the disease, worsened the partisan divides on how to best combat it.
What’s hard, though, in analyzing one-term presidents is knowing just how much any of this is actually within their control. We know that presidents are not infinitely powerful, especially when it comes to engineering major legislation to address complicated economic problems. Take Carter. Economists at the time thought government spending needed to be curtailed to stop inflation, which meant making major cuts to government programs, but this was politically impossible for Carter, as Congress would have resisted and he would have lost support among New Deal Democrats, which were still an important part of the party’s coalition.
Political scientist Stephen Skowronek refers to this quandary, which presidents periodically find themselves in, as the “politics of disjunction” — circumstances in which a party coalition (in Carter’s case, New Deal Democrats) has dominated politics for decades, and politicians elected by that coalition feel beholden to the ideas and policies that got them into office, but those ideas are no longer a good match for addressing the problems facing the country.
Presidents in these situations often try to fix the crises that arise on their watch, but they face serious political limitations in doing so. Hoover falls into this category as well. He did engage in some policy experimentation, including the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which sought to provide some public support to banks and railroads. But like Carter, Hoover was caught between pushing the boundaries of what was politically feasible at the time, especially within his own party, and the reality that much greater change was needed to address the economic crisis.
How does this apply to Trump? In one way, we can sort of see how the problems of political feasibility have shaped the stimulus negotiations. It would have been almost impossible to get congressional Republicans to agree to a big relief bill regardless of who was president. But it’s also hard to say that the White House took the pandemic seriously and was then thwarted by politics in Congress or anywhere else. Instead, Trump publicly battled with Democratic governors over whether to reopen some types of businesses, urged the public not to let the virus control their lives (after being diagnosed with it himself), and denied the seriousness of the situation at almost every stage.
This isn’t a typical story, even for presidents who mishandled the crises they faced and subsequently lost reelection, which makes it especially hard to answer the question of how much of Trump’s failure to be reelected was Trump’s own fault and how much was due to factors beyond his control.
What is interesting here, though, is that in spite of these conditions, Trump was a competitive incumbent. Both parties benefited from record turnout, and, in the end, he will probably have won about 47 percent of the popular vote, compared to more like 40 percent for Hoover, Carter, and Bush. Despite Trump’s low approval ratings, he didn’t face a serious primary challenger either — which also makes his experience different from that of Ford, Carter and Bush.
This last point might give us a clue as to why it’s been so long since a president lost reelection. We’ve become more polarized as a county, and as a result, the parties have become more ideologically uniform, making the factional politics that drive primary challengers less likely. Negative partisanship has also raised the stakes, crowding out the possibilities for a centrist independent candidacy to divide a party. In fact, the consolidation of party support around presidential candidates has arguably even helped incumbents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama win reelection.
Ultimately, Trump’s presidency faced some of the same problems that have brought down other administrations: economic woes and political dissatisfaction with poor leadership. But he also brought his own political baggage. And while it might be difficult to disentangle the two, even in today’s highly polarized environment, that combination didn’t bode well for his reelection chances.