Capt. Seth Keshel, Apr 10
In 1888, Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to occupy the White House since the Civil War ended, gained 620,000 net new votes over his winning popular vote total from 1884. Running against Benjamin Harrison, he managed to lose his home state of New York, and though he won the popular vote, was edged out in the Electoral College.
The Empire State revolting against the incumbent gave Cleveland the unique distinction of being the last incumbent to gain votes from his previous election and lose his campaign for reelection. By 1888, the growth of the Republic had slowed, with most of the union having formed by that time. Popular vote totals were steadier and more predictable, with only tiny territories yet to be added as states.
It makes perfect sense that gaining votes in a reelection campaign would doom any challenger’s campaign, especially if “stability voters” are pleased with the incumbent’s performance and break away from normal party lines, setting the challenger’s party back from its normal base starting point.
Here is the tale of the tape for candidates seeking reelection, and their net gains (or losses) from previous election, since that fateful election:
1892: Harrison, -268,000, lost to Cleveland
1900: McKinley, +117,000, defeated Bryan
1912: Taft, -4,920,000, defeated by Wilson
1916: Wilson, +2,831,000, defeated Hughes
1932: Hoover, -5,666,000, lost to F. Roosevelt
1936: F. Roosevelt, +4,907,000, defeated Landon
1940: F. Roosevelt, -435,000, defeated Willkie
1944: F. Roosevelt, -1,701,000, defeated Dewey
1956: Eisenhower, +1,503,000, defeated Stevenson
1972: Nixon, +15,385,000, defeated McGovern
1980: Carter, -5,352,000, lost to Reagan
1984: Reagan, +10,552,000, defeated Mondale
1992: Bush, -9,782,000, lost to Clinton
1996: Clinton, +2,491,000, defeated Dole
2004: Bush, +11,585,000, defeated Kerry
2012: Obama, -3,583,000, defeated Romney
2020: Trump, +11,231,000, “lost” to Biden
Re-elected presidential campaigns, as well as Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, are charted above. Three campaigns that won reelection, including two of Franklin Roosevelt’s, did so with fewer votes than the previous election. Barack Obama, one of the weakest incumbent presidents of all time, lost nearly four million votes nationally, but was reelected because Republicans nominated a spineless squish who was incapable of relating to working class voters.
In all its splendor, Trump’s reelection campaign added the third highest incumbent vote increase in history. Nixon’s 1972 campaign holds the record, but in 1968, George Wallace of Alabama ran the last third-party campaign that won electoral votes. When he left the field, the south consolidated around Nixon’s reelection campaign, and the popular vote increased was amplified accordingly. In 2004, Bush added slightly more than Trump did, in what is the first election of what I call “the high turnout era,” the last election in which both parties both gained a substantial amount of votes.
With those points considered, Trump’s incumbent vote gain is arguably the most prominent in history, and many of his known gains came from the minority working class, which has long been a major contributor of votes for the Democrats. Mysteriously, with Trump also piling up record vote gains in moderate Republican suburban strongholds, the Democrats not only backfilled the lost minority or 2016 third party votes but added 16 million new white liberals to the final Biden tally.
Ask your doubting friends why this indicator, applicable for 128 years leading up to the 2020 election, and with Trump winning the bellwether counties and states, suddenly expired with Trump setting an all-time popular vote record in his own right. They may respond with emotion, but likely had no idea that the incumbent president running up the score from his first winning campaign signals a proverbial death knell for his opponent.