What Incumbent Advantage?

It’s almost a truism that the incumbent has an advantage in U.S. elections. In many cases that’s true. Congressional incumbents very rarely lose, for instance. But in modern presidential elections? I don’t see it.

Before 2020, there were eight presidential elections in my lifetime in which an incumbent candidate ran. The incumbent won five—1972, 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012—and lost three—1976, 1980, 1992. Three of eight doesn’t sound like a big advantage and is well within the margin of error. One flip and its fifty fifty. Add in 2020, and the ratio drops to 5/9.

Presidential elections generally draw real opposition, unlike most congressional elections so it’s not a surprise that challengers due better here than down ballot.

Naively I would expect that incumbents are more likely to win, simply because (except for a vice president who inherited the presidency) they’ve already demonstrated an ability to manage a campaign and win an election. That can’t be said for challengers since parties do occasionally nominate a truly bad candidate. Goldwater 1964, McGovern 1972, and Clinton 2016 were all deeply flawed candidates. They might have made good, or at least better, presidents; but they were all exceptionally weak as candidates.

However the numbers don’t seem to bear that out. If incumbency were a measurable advantage, I’d expect to see better results than five out of nine.

Leave a Reply