Author: Seth C. McKee, Professor, Oklahoma State University
In teaching presidential politics, students should know American presidential elections typically take on three different types of dynamics:
- An endorsement of the incumbent and their political party, or a reaffirmation of the president, specifically if the president seeks reelection.
- A battle for an open seat because the president is term-limited (for example, President Johnson in 1968 was the last incumbent to not seek reelection).
- A retrospective contest in which voters punish the president or the president’s party, if it’s an open-seat contest.
This blog focuses on retrospective presidential elections, as 2020 was one of them.
The Prevalence of Retrospective Elections
There are three retrospective elections that offer a better sense of what happened in 2020. These retrospective elections are 1980, 1992 and 2008.
In these types of elections, independent voters go against the party of the incumbent president. Therefore, it follows that the out-party is rewarded with the majority of their vote. This contributes to the election of out-party presidential contenders.
Students might also be surprised to know a small number of voters aligned with the president’s party will also vote in favor of the out-party nominee.
In sum, retrospective elections are negative referendums on the performance of the incumbent president and by extension this president’s political party. Voters punish the president and the president’s party by shifting in favor of the alternative, which is the other major party in our two-party political system.
In 1992, 19% of the popular vote was cast for political independent candidate H. Ross Perot. In 1980 close to 7% of the popular vote was cast for political independent (and former Republican) John Anderson.
The 1980 Election
In one of the most memorable debate lines, the Republican challenger Ronald Reagan looked squarely into the camera to ask, “…are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Why would such a simple query have such powerful resonance with American voters? It was a devastating inquiry, as Democratic President Jimmy Carter knew. The culmination of an energy crisis, stagflation (high unemployment and high inflation) and an ongoing standoff with Iran over their taking Americans hostage in November 1979, elicited an obvious answer to Reagan’s question: No!
The last four years under President Carter’s watch were trying times to say the least. Consequently, with regard to the popular two-party vote, Reagan defeated Carter 55% to 45%. Reagan’s Electoral College victory was a blowout: 489 votes to Carter’s 49. If you paid close attention to the 2020 election cycle, experts often made comparisons to the 1980 election.
The 1988 Election
In 1988, for the first time since Democratic President Truman in 1948, the same political party (the Grand Old Party), under different candidates, won three consecutive presidential elections.
This occurred when President Reagan’s Vice President, Republican George H.W. Bush, defeated Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
When accepting his party’s nomination in 1988, Bush exclaimed, “Read my lips, no new taxes!”
Unfortunately, because of federal deficits and an economic recession in the early 1990s, President Bush cut a deal with congressional Democrats. They decided to raise taxes with the hope of engineering an economic recovery.
The economy was recovering as the 1992 election approached, but not fast enough for most American voters. Hence, the necessary bipartisan policy for improving the economy didn’t benefit President Bush.
The 1992 Election
President Bush’s Democratic opponent in 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, harped on the economy.
Meanwhile, Independent candidate H. Ross Perot, blamed the country’s debt and deficits on the fiscal irresponsibility of both major parties. This endeared him to legions of independent voters.
For a president who once enjoyed an approval rating exceeding 80% in the wake of the successful 1990–91 Gulf War, it was extraordinary to witness how strongly the electoral tide turned against Bush. The 1992 popular vote split three ways: 43% for the Democrat Clinton, 38% for the Republican Bush and 19% for the Independent Perot. Clinton defeated Bush in the Electoral College 370 to 168.
Voters ended President Bush’s tenure. The economy was growing, but not fast enough. Perhaps President Clinton owes his predecessor a hefty debt of gratitude. The economy soared for most of his two terms.
The 2000 Election
In the first election of the new millennium, the 2000 open-seat contest awarded over a half-million more votes to Al Gore, the Democratic loser and Bill Clinton’s Vice President.
Thanks to a 537 popular-vote margin in Florida, George W. Bush, the Republican governor of Texas, won the Electoral College with 271 votes to Gore’s 266. One must win at least 270 electoral votes, a simple Electoral College majority (out of 538) to win the presidency. Otherwise, the victor is decided in the House of Representatives.
In 2004, President George W. Bush managed to win both the popular and electoral vote. If his challenger, Democratic Senator John Kerry had won Ohio, Bush would have been a one-termer like his father.
Term-limited in 2008, President Bush left a mess to the Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush briefly enjoyed an approval rating at over 90%, the highest ever recorded.
However, not long after winning reelection in 2004, the Iraq War that began in March of 2003, worsened as enemy insurgents attacked U.S. troops. Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
Finally, in mid-September 2008, the Great Recession manifested. The economy experienced an acute collapse with numerous corporations filing for bankruptcy. President Bush notched the highest disapproval rating in the history of Gallup’s polling.
On the campaign trail and in debates with Illinois Senator and Democrat Barack Obama, Republican presidential nominee John McCain reminded voters he wasn’t George W. Bush. But the damage was done.
Voters punished McCain for the poor performance of President Bush, leader of the Republican Party. The popular vote favored Obama over McCain at 54% to 46%. In the Electoral College, Obama won 365 votes to McCain’s 173.
The 2016 Election
In a reprise of the 2000 election, 2016 also resulted in the popular vote winner losing the Electoral College and the presidency.
In one of the most improbable outcomes, the Republican Donald Trump, was the surprise victor over Democrat, Hillary Clinton.
Trump pulled off a remarkable feat. He won the majority of swing states he needed, along with three states that were considered leaning toward Clinton: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The last time a Republican presidential contender won Michigan and Pennsylvania was in 1988. The last time it happened in Wisconsin was in 1984.
Trump managed wins in all three states in 2016. Overall, Clinton won the popular two-party vote by 51% to 49%. But, in the Electoral College, Trump took 304 votes to Clinton’s 227.
As an early warning for Trump’s candidacy, two Texas Republican electors who had pledged to vote for Trump, actually cast their Electoral College votes for Republicans Ron Paul and John Kasich.
The 2020 Election
Trump’s presidency is hallmarked by a historic degree of political division. Republican voters have never been so approving, while Democratic voters have never been so disapproving.
Unfortunately for Trump, among the small number of Republicans who disapprove of his performance, many left the party. Independent voters also strongly turned against him. Evidence comes from the 2018 midterm, when 56% of independent voters reported casting votes for Democratic candidates.
In contrast in 2016, Trump captured 52% of the independent votes cast for major party nominees. Finally, the 2020 exit poll shows 57% of independents voting for Democrat Joe Biden.
A key topic from this year’s election included President Trump’s widely perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s received poor marks for his response to this global crisis. Among the 17% of voters in the 2020 exit poll who stated the pandemic was the most important issue for their presidential choice, they split 82% to 14% in favor of Biden.
President Trump defied the odds in 2016, but his luck didn’t continue in 2020. Four years gave voters plenty of time to decide if an incumbent president deserved a second term.
- Is it the performance of presidents, or circumstances outside their control, that result in a retrospective election?
- Why are independent voters the most important segment of the electorate in retrospective elections?
- In any of these examples, could presidents have acted in a way that resulted in reelection? If so, how? If not, why?
For further insights and peer-tested tips on teaching an effective course, check out our full library of professional development resources.
Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
Iyengar, Shanto, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, and Sean J. Westwood. 2019. “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States.” Annual Review of Political Science 22: 129-146.
Jacobson, Gary C. 2007. A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People. New York: Pearson/Longman.