History does not guarantee President Donald J. Trump‘s reelection in 2020. Conversely, history also does not guarantee Trump will lose next year.
To explain, the last three presidents; William J. Clinton (D-Arkansas), George W. Bush (R-Texas), and Barack Obama (D-Illinois) each won a second term fairly easily. On the other hand, the reelection of three different presidents in a row is an unprecedented event in American history.
For instance, just four sitting presidents; Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois); and Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois) won reelection in the 19th Century. To clarify, one ex-president; Grover Cleveland (D-New York), won reelection in 1892. In addition, the last president elected in the 19th Century William McKinley (R-Ohio) won reelection in 1900.
Does History favor sitting presidents?
On the other hand, one President; Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) or FDR, won reelection four times in the 1930s and 1940s.
Notably, Roosevelt’s reelections were largely the result of extraordinary outside events; the Great Depression and World War II. Interestingly, FDR was the object of an absurd and dangerous cult of personality like President Donald J. Trump (R-New York). However, Roosevelt’s popularity was far greater than Trump’s.
In addition to FDR; six other 20th Century presidents; McKinley, Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey), Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas), Richard M. Nixon (R-California), Ronald Reagan (R-California) and Clinton won reelection. Thus, incumbency helped candidates in the 20th Century.
However, we are no longer living in the 20th Century. A fact that many pundits; unlike Trump himself, seem to be unaware of.
Does History guarantee Trump’s Reelection?
Thus, history does not favor sitting presidents. Instead, sitting presidents have an advantage in some eras of American history.
For example, sitting presidents had an advantage in the 1930s, 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. However, sitting presidents were at a distinct disadvantage in the 1840s, 1850s, 1880s, 1900s, and 1970s.
In fact, no sitting president won his party’s nomination between 1840 and 1860. Specifically, things got so bad that one President; James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) pledged not to seek reelection in 1848.
History does not guarantee Trump’s Reelection in an Era like this
Notably, the 1840s and 1850s, like today were a distinctly anti-establishment era. To explain, voters were so skeptical of government before the Civil War they would vote for any outsider.
Thus, the unknown general; Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) beat the well-known political insider Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) and former President Martin Van Buren (I-New York) in 1848. Notably, Taylor had never run for political office and reportedly had never voted before 1848. Taylor’s only qualifications were that he was famous, popular, and new to voters; sound familiar?
Moreover, in 1852 it took the Democratic convention 49 votes to nominate the obscure Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire) for President. Tellingly, author Richard Kluger notes that Pierce’s primary qualification was “that he had no enemies.”
Plus, Pierce won office with a thin majority after a bruising race against another celebrity general outsider hero candidate Winfeld Scott (W-Virginia). See Seizing Destiny by Richard Kluger page 489 for details.
Are we living in a new era of American politics?
Unfortunately, we cannot tell if we are living in such an era. However, there are some strong similarities between the 1840s and 1850s and our time.
In particular, there is a great interest in celebrity outsider candidates who can fix a broken political system today. Americans had a similar fixation in the 1840s and 50s when major parties nominated three celebrity generals; Taylor, Scott, and John C. Fremont (R-California), who had little direct political experience for president.
Moreover, the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were a time of great political instability. For instance, one major political party; the Whigs (W), collapsed completely. In addition, a second major political party; the Democrats split into different factions.
Interestingly, party loyalties were weak during the period. For instance, two former presidents; Van Buren and Millard Fillmore (W-New York), ran for president on third-party tickets in 1848 and 1856. Finally, a new political party; the Republicans, rose out of the ruins of the Whigs and Northern Democrats.
How will the New Era of American politics play out?
Disturbingly, the ultimate result of the 1840s and 1850s was the Civil War. The Civil War broke out because Americans could not settle the primary political question of the era: slavery.
Fortunately, I see no political issue as divisive or intractable as slavery in today’s America. However, passions and frustrations with the system are running high. Thus, civil war is unlikely, but conflict will continue.
Consequently, I think the instability will continue for at least another decade until we reach a compromise. My suspicion is that will take a crisis to force a compromise and settlement on our political system. However, I do not know what that crisis will be.
In the final analysis history does not guarantee Trump’s reelection because we live in a different era. However, Trump has an advantage in this era because; unlike most observers, he seems to understand the times we live in. Only history will tell if that understanding will be enough to win the Donald a second term.