Who will win the presidential election this November? How will this week’s Super Tuesday shape the outcome of that November election? What can history tell us about the answer to those two questions?
Knowledge of history cannot provide certainty of the future. One thing history tells us is that things often change. But historic trends are helpful when preparing for future events. And historic trends say a lot about the November general election and this week’s primary elections.
On March 3, fourteen states and American Samoa will engage in selecting preferences for this summer’s national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. Roughly one-third of those delegates for these conventions will be selected by the elections held in these fifteen places. The trend over the past several election cycles has been that the candidate for each party who gains the most delegates on Super Tuesday eventually receives the party’s nomination for president. Therefore, much attention is devoted to the results of this week’s elections.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, seventeen presidential elections have been held. In ten of those elections, the incumbent President was nominated for a second term. Incumbent Presidents have won seven of the ten elections in which they ran. Looking at those ten elections may provide insight into what to expect when votes are casted and counted this November.
1956: In the 1952 election, Republicans nominated General Dwight Eisenhower for President, and Democrats nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Eisenhower easily beat Stevenson, winning 55 percent of the popular vote and 39 of the 48 states. In 1956, the Republicans nominated President Eisenhower again, and the Democrats nominated Stevenson again. This time, Eisenhower won 57 percent of the popular vote and carried 41 of the 48 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE STEVENSON: Hillary Clinton, except that she is not on the ballot. Elizabeth Warren might be the closest candidate on the ballot to another Hillary Clinton.
1964: Lyndon Johnson became President less than a year before the election with the assassination of John Kennedy. With the legacy of Kennedy backing him, Johnson was nominated for a second term. Republicans chose Senator Barry Goldwater, who was a strongly conservative candidate who was unwilling to compromise his positions to attract centrist voters. As a result, Johnson won the election with 61 percent of the popular vote and 44 of 50 states, one of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE GOLDWATER: Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist.
1972: In 1971, Richard Nixon appeared very defeatable. However, the Democrats nominated liberal Senator George McGovern, and Nixon cruised to victory in the November election, with 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 49 of 50 states, another of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE MCGOVERN: Again, Bernie Sanders.
1976: Vice-President Agnew and President Nixon both resigned office, and Gerald Ford became President without having been on the previous ballot. He was opposed in the primary campaign by Ronald Reagan but won the nomination. The Democrats countered with Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a candidate outside of the national political stream, one who was presented as trustworthy and likeable, and one not as liberal as McGovern. Carter won with 50.1 percent of the popular vote and with 23 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (giving him 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240). CANDIDATE MOST LIKE CARTER: Pete Buttigieg, who this past weekend withdrew from the primary race.
1980: In his second try for the Republican nomination, and with his teams in place from the previous election, Ronald Reagan achieved the nomination, while Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter (although he received a significant challenge in the primaries from Senator Edward Kennedy). Some Republicans feared a repeat of 1964, given Reagan’s conservative leanings. But Carter was faced with international crises (including the hostages in Iran) and a struggling economy. Reagan won the election with 50.7 percent of the popular vote, carrying 44 of the 50 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE REAGAN: Bernie Sanders.
1984: Reagan easily won the nomination for reelection from the Republicans. Democrats selected Walter Mondale, who had been Vice-President under Jimmy Carter. With a strong economy and no foreign policy disasters, voters favored President Reagan, giving him 59% of the popular vote and 49 of the 50 states—the third of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE MONDALE: Joe Biden, who was Vice-President under Barack Obama.
1992: Vice-President George Bush won the Republican nomination and the general election in 1988, only one of four sitting Vice-Presidents who ran for President and won in the modern era. (Vice-Presidents Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Albert Gore in 2000 all won their party’s nomination but lost in close elections.) After the Persian Gulf War, Bush was seen as unbeatable for reelection, but the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas. Like Carter, Clinton was seen as a Washington outsider, one who was as likeable as Carter if not as trustworthy, and someone who was moderate rather than a liberal like McGovern in 1972. H. Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate. Clinton won the election with 43 percent of the popular vote, carrying 32 states and the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE CLINTON: Pete Buttigieg (but see above, 1976 campaign)
1996: Clinton won the Democrat’s primary for reelection. He was opposed by Senator Bob Dole, a long-time Republican leader who was expected to appeal to moderates who had preferred Clinton to Bush. Perot also ran again. Dole’s campaign never caught the momentum that had carried candidates like Carter, Reagan, and Clinton into office. Clinton won reelection with 49.2 percent of the popular vote and 31 states plus the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE DOLE: Joe Biden.
2004: Having won narrowly over Vice-President Gore in 2000, George W. Bush was nominated by the Republicans for a second term. The Democrats countered with Senator John Kerry, a war hero who challenged President Bush’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The election was close, but Bush won with 50.7 percent of the popular vote and 31 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE KERRY: Similarities can be drawn between Kerry and Biden, Sanders, or Warren. Whoever wins the most delegates on Super Tuesday will probably be the best candidate to compare to Kerry.
2012: Senator Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain in the 2008 election, and Republicans felt that President Obama would be easily defeated in his campaign for reelection, viewing him as hampered as Carter had been in 1980. During the primaries, Governor Mitt Romney emerged as the Republican frontrunner, although he was challenged by several conservative candidates. Each conservative candidate prevailed in one state or another under the “anyone but Romney” umbrella, but none of them consolidated support to deny Romney the nomination. President Obama won the election with 51.1 percent of the popular vote and 26 states plus the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE ROMNEY: Probably Bernie Sanders, given the “anyone but Sanders” feeling of less liberal Democrats.
Conclusion: Presidents Ford, Carter, and Bush all faced difficulties in their first terms that cost them a second term—for the most part, these difficulties involved economic weakness of the United States. The economy in 2020 is strong. While main-stream media has tried to create a sense of crisis regarding President Trump’s foreign policy decisions—most recently regarding the Coronavirus—most voters do not seem to agree with the media assessment of Trump’s performance in office. The impeachment attempt against President Trump only strengthened his support, while further dividing Democratic voters. About the only hopeful sign for the Democratic Party in this election is that Reagan was able to beat Carter in 1980 without making many compromises to capture centrist voters. Aside from that, Sanders and Biden both face uphill battles to overturn incumbent President Donald Trump, when comparing this election to previous elections.
What of Mike Bloomberg? He most resembles H. Ross Perot as a candidate, even though he has entered the Democratic primaries rather than running as a third-party candidate. While it is hard to judge whether his campaign will damage Biden or Sanders more, it is clear that he will not help either of them to win in November, and his chances of beating President Trump are even less than theirs. J.