Paul  Kengor

The next incumbent to fail to be reelected was George H. W. Bush. Bush won the 1988 election largely on the strength of the Reagan years. He was the closest Americans could get to a third Reagan term. By 1992, however, Bush, who had fatally reversed his no-new-taxes pledge, was dealing with a recession. He also faced a third-party challenge from Ross Perot. He lost to Bill Clinton, who got about the same percentage of the vote that Woodrow Wilson did in the three-way race of 1912.

This meant that Mitt Romney, in seeking to defeat Barack Obama, had history against him—but with one exception: Though history showed that incumbents usually win, it also showed that incumbents with bad economies typically lose. By every objective measurement, the economy in 2012 was far worse than four years ago: 47 million on food stamps (up from 32 million); all-time record deficits and debit (dwarfing the Bush numbers); a surge in welfare rolls; chronic unemployment; a prolonged non-recovering recovery; 636,000 homeless; a doubling of gas prices; and on and on. No president since FDR in 1940 had won reelection with an unemployment rate above 7.1 percent. And for FDR, that number was a huge improvement from four years earlier.

How did Obama and his team overcome this? The answer: as exit polls confirm, they successfully blamed it on George W. Bush, with Bill Clinton aiding and abetting the process. There were no limits to how much they blamed Bush, and how much the blame worked with
the Democratic base.

But even that doesn’t describe the full picture. Remarkably, Mitt Romney received fewer votes in 2012 than John McCain did in 2008, even amid the red-hot anti-Obama sentiment among conservatives and what seemed to be a genuine pro-Romney enthusiasm among Republicans. The enthusiasm was real, but it apparently wasn’t broad enough. And it wasn’t like there was huge enthusiasm for Obama, at least compared to four years ago. Obama got nine million less votes than he did in 2008. (Caution: more votes continue to be tabulated.) He is the first president to be reelected with both a lower number of Electoral College votes and a lower total of popular votes.

Yet, overall, we might frame the election of 2012 as one in which one of two historical forces would have to give: either the power of incumbency or the power of a bad economy.

In the end, Barack Obama, the incumbent, prevailed—barely.