Alter tempore – out’s in free.
Incumbent presidents are simply not expected to lose. Even though Obama’s approval ratings are low, there really is no ‘A-Team’ of strong contenders to go up against him. The reason may not be what you think. While it is OK in American politics to fail to win the party’s nomination, it is the unpardonable sin to fail in the general election. I once coached in a youth soccer league. We had a strong team, and I told them that it would be fine if they didn’t win the final tournament game against a bigger, faster, stronger team. A chorus of, “Second place is just first loser” came from the group, I hadn’t heard it before but of course it makes perfect sense. America hates losers in the modern era, especially in politics.
Here’s a good list of the runner-ups going back to 1789. Nixon was the exception to the rule, coming back from ignominious defeat to best Humphrey in 1968. Wilson beat out Taft in 1912 mainly because it was a “spoiler” contest with Teddy Roosevelt splitting the Republican Party’s votes. Carter (I voted John Anderson in 1980 and he took a surprisingly large number of votes for the modern era almost 7%) and Clinton (I also voted for Perot) were both to benefit from third party bids taking relatively high percentages of the electorate (although no electoral votes, the system being broken in that regard).
The exception that (almost) breaks the rule has to be William Jennings Bryan. Given that he was the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, his positions would be positively humiliating to current liberals. (Funny how positions stick to Republicans and slide off Democrats, but that’s a topic for another post.) Some candidates, such as Adlai Stevenson and Thomas Dewey seem like placeholders to us today, sacrificial lambs to show there really was another party in the race. Going back still further, Grover Cleveland won in 1888 but didn’t garner enough electoral votes to reclaim the presidency. I won’t go further back because the early rough-and-tumble days of the nation had very strange politics by modern standards.
Gerald Ford was never elected to a full term in large part due to the Nixon Pardon. George H W Bush lost due to the splitting of the Republican vote that Perot caused and because he had broken the “Read my lips” pledge. Carter lost because of the malaise speech and the horrendous economy, joblessness and high inflation. Reagan got the nod (even though he was considered too old) primarily because of his optimism strategy. Obama doesn’t face the same trifecta because at least we don’t have high inflation (that’s readily visible). As long as Americans can still finance Government Motors cars at low interest rates, they are happy campers.
We should really focus now on the presidential campaigns that broke the mold of not wasting your best candidates in a presidential “second term” election. Since most presidents have won their second terms (if they ran) it makes sense not to pull out all the stops to defeat them then, but wait until the free-for-all that will occur at the end of the 8 years. Alter tempore elections with “B-Team” players have given us the recent surprises of heretofore unknowns like Carter and Clinton. Digging deeper into either candidate shows obscure governors from smallish southern states defeating deeper-pocketed and higher name recognition establishment candidates from their own parties to wrap up the party nomination. Meanwhile these back-benchers were merely placeholders while the A-Team were waiting for their proper time after the 2nd term.
Whether this is one of those elections remains to be seen, but I suspect the A-Team of GOP candidates took a good look at Obama’s billion dollar war chest and incumbency advantage and decided to give this round a pass. There’s always alter tempore in 2016.