Category Archives: 2024 election

a presidential election with two incumbents?

Incumbent presidents have a substantial advantage for reelection. Only 10 have lost. Statistical models that attempt to control for other factors, such as the economy, typically give a presidential candidate a bonus of 4-8 percentage points just for being the incumbent. In 2009, David Mayhew noted that parties had won the White House only half the time when they didn’t run an incumbent for reelection, but two thirds of the time when they did. That disparity is a little smaller now that Trump has lost a reelection race, but it’s still substantial.

Incumbents also have a vast advantage in their own party’s nomination race, with only Franklin Pierce actually losing his party’s support while he was in the White House. (Several others have chosen not to run.)

However, it’s not clear what these patterns mean for 2024. After all, two leading candidates have recently been presidents of the United States. Whether one, both, or neither will get an incumbency advantage is hard to tell from the historical data. There have only been 59 presidential elections ever, and only 23 in the modern era since FDR beat Hoover. Many variables are relevant to the outcomes of these cases. It is therefore hard to detect which aspects of incumbency may matter–and certainly hard to extrapolate any patterns to our unprecedented situation.

(I think that only one president was unseated but got his original party’s nomination again in a subsequent year: that was Grover Cleveland, who won the rematch.)

Mayhew identified 12 possible explanations for the presidential incumbency advantage and collected the evidence that might bear on each explanation. See his table 3.

Possible explanations of presidential incumbency bias from Mayhew 2008.

Some of these factors presume that the incumbent typically has impressive “capabilities,” because a president has already managed to win a national election and has governed for up to four years. The challenger could be equally capable, but the odds are against it.

In this case, I personally think that Joe Biden has demonstrated strong capabilities, whereas Trump’s campaigns and his time in office demonstrate a blatant lack thereof. However, it doesn’t matter what I think, but what the electorate decides. According to today’s New York Times/Siena poll, 44 percent of Americans agree with me–they hold a very unfavorable view of Trump–but 42 percent strongly disapprove of Biden’s performance in office. What is unusual is the fact that both likely nominees have recently served as the president, which may make this factor a wash.

Voters might also simply prefer a candidate who already holds office. For instance, perhaps some voters are risk-averse: biased against changing horses. Or perhaps they think that any newcomer would need too much time to become effective. Risk-aversion might help Biden a bit in 2024, although some voters may feel that electing him in 2020 was the unwise change. Voters can presumably see either Trump or Biden as the status quo if they want to. Some Trump voters even believe that he is the rightful winner of the most recent election.

“Incumbent party fatigue” refers to the pattern that each party loses a small amount of support–on average–each year that it holds the White House. However, this trend does not doom incumbents, in part because too little “fatigue” typically occurs within four years. The candidates who tend to suffer are those who try to succeed a president of the same party.

The explanations that Mayhew calls “strategic behavior” are of the following type. Perhaps the party of an incumbent president typically organizes to renominate him if he’s been doing well but moves against him if not–as was the case with LBJ in 1968. That would imply that incumbents who run for reelection have generally had successful first terms. And perhaps the opposition party is easily captured by marginal figures when its prospects already look weak against a popular incumbent (consider Barry Goldwater in 1964, or Michael Foot against Margaret Thatcher in 1983). However, Mayhew does not see a lot of power in this type of explanation.

Somewhat buried in his list are factors under the incumbent president’s direct control, such as the ability to allocate funds (e.g., to decide whether to locate the Space Command in Colorado or Alabama), where to deploy cabinet members, which bills to sign or veto, etc. Early in 2021, I predicted that the “$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 would prove popular by putting cash directly and quickly into people’s pockets,” and this would help Democrats in 2022. Democrats did somewhat better than most people expected that year, but there’s no evidence that nearly $2 trillion helped them electorally. (In other words, I was wrong.) The other side of the coin is that presidents must make difficult and unpopular decisions.

Overall, I think that Biden has an advantage in 2024 if the economy avoids a deep recession. I think a substantial Biden victory is possible if the economy starts to lift. I suspect that the 4-8 point incumbency advantage–which would typically give Biden a landslide–will not apply, because the electorate will split on the question of who is the rightful incumbent in the first place.

*Mayhew, David R. “Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 201–28. See also: 1984 all over again? The Reagan/Biden analogy; What kind of a claim is “Biden has an 87% chance of winning”? (on the metaphysics of probability)

Regan and Biden approval ratings through day 913 of their respective administrations.

1984 all over again? The Reagan/Biden analogy

The Biden team is preparing for a Reagan-style victory lap in the event that the economy looks healthy in 2024. I hope they are also prepping for more difficult circumstances, since the economic forecast is highly uncertain. However, for what it’s worth, Morgan Stanley “now projects 1.9% GDP growth for the first half of this year.”

These are my prior assumptions:

  1. A president has limited and ambiguous impact on macroeconomic trends. Too many other factors matter, from the Federal Reserve and Congress to the business cycle, and from wars and technological developments to the budgets of 50 states.
  2. Although many people vote on other grounds, enough marginal voters are influenced by recent changes in the economy that those trends predict the results of presidential elections.
  3. People cite the economic and electoral fortunes of each presidential administration to support their ideological positions. For instance, the apparent successes of FDR and Reagan were used to vindicate New Deal liberalism and neoliberalism, respectively.
  4. Economic trends influence public opinion, but they do not determine the outcome of the debate about ideology. Eisenhower, Clinton, and Obama are examples of presidents who saw healthy net economic growth and were reelected, yet their administrations did not move public opinion as FDR’s and Reagan’s did. The big shifts in opinion seem to reflect changes in the Zeitgeist, not just electoral and economic developments.

Applying #1 means that Biden’s policies will not affect the economy much in 2024, even though Morgan Stanley believes that he is responsible for the upturn. According to #2, Biden will win pretty easily if growth is robust but could lose to Trump or another Republican if it stalls.

Per #3, if the economy grows and Biden wins, the President and many Democrats will argue that the reason was his industrial policy, which is aggressive, green, and pro-equity. I favor the policy, so I will be hoping that this argument sticks, even though I believe that macroeconomic trends are out of his hands.

If the case for Bidenomics does persuade, it will be thanks to the Zeitgeist. To make that explanation a little less mystical, I would focus on two factors.

First, the previously dominant neoliberal view really is fading now, much as late-Victorian laissez-faire was faltering by 1932 and New Deal liberalism had run its course by 1980. By a certain point, established theories don’t offer plausible solutions to the problems of the day, but alternatives do. By the time FDR took office, his home state of New York and several others had already moved in the direction of the New Deal; Roosevelt took the opportunity to bring their ideas to Washington. Likewise for Reagan in 1980–and for Biden in 2020. Indeed, Trump is no neoliberal, and there will probably be no national candidate who runs on cutting taxes and spending.

Second, the demographic basis of politics has shifted. I avoid crude materialistic and class-based predictions, yet the people who have the most to gain from low taxes and light regulation are business owners and investors. They are now outweighed in the GOP (which they once controlled) by working-class voters. They are represented in the Democratic Party, but outweighed there, too, by diverse lower-income voters, public sector workers, and salaried professionals.

The tectonic plates are shifting, and it’s at such moments that presidential administrations become examples or even metaphors for fundamental change. We had a “new deal for America” and then saw “morning in America” once the actual New Deal state faltered. The opportunity to make another such shift is a good reason to run a celebratory campaign in 2024–if (but only if) the economy holds up.

See also: federal spending for both climate and democracy

whether to make the election a referendum on MAGA

In an interesting conversation between Ryan Grimm and Dimitri Melhorn (who represent two very different strands in today’s Democratic Party), Melhorn says:

So, imagine you’re the average voter, and you’re saying, OK, there are three things you can choose to believe about politics, and adjust your behavior accordingly. One, politics can do nothing for you. Two, politics can make your life better. Three, politics can make your life worse. People will believe the third. They normally default to the first, but they will believe the third. Within a rounding error, for electorally viable purposes, nobody believed the second, other than Bernie [Sanders] and his staffers and, you know, some other folks. It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. It doesn’t.

I won’t dispute that Dmitri is right about the USA right now, and perhaps his theory would apply in Britain and much of the EU. It’s hard to persuade undecided voters that new or different leaders or policies will improve their lives. They are ready to believe that some current proposals would hurt them, and this fear can persuade them that voting matters. In turn, many of the current proposals that frighten the most Americans come from the hard right. Thus, Melhorn argues, the path to a Democratic victory is to make the election a referendum on right-wing ideas while downplaying ambitious progressive ones.

Although Dmitri may be correct about the present, this can’t be a law of nature. Surely FDR persuaded Americans that “politics can make your life better.” Maybe Roosevelt didn’t need a positive case to win against Herbert Hoover in 1932, but he and his party did argue for a New Deal, and the result was a whole new social contract, not only some electoral victories. Likewise for Clement Atlee in Britain (1945-51) and many other cases. Skepticism about the positive potential of elections and policy is a particular feature of our time.

Nor is skepticism universal now. In the 2020 American National Election Study, when presented with a forced choice, 42% of adults said “the less government, the better,” but 58% said there are “more things government should be doing.”

I would acknowledge that general pro-government sentiment doesn’t always translate into support for actual candidates who propose to do specific things. For one thing, almost a quarter of those who voted for Trump wanted government to do more, and they may not have the same kinds of interventions in mind that I do. Worse for progressives, the level of openness to more government was weakest where government might do the most good. In 2020, people without any college experience were split 50%/50% on the value of more government, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees favored more government by a 36-point margin (68%-32%). Black people were nine points less likely to support increasing government than white people (60% vs. 68%).

This class inversion has profoundly bad implications for our politics (and not just for progressives), but it is not historically typical. It’s a trap we must get out of.

During the Biden Administration, Democrats are actually making dramatic policy changes that might–if they succeed–make people’s lives better. When the Inflation Reduction Act passed last August, it was predicted to provide $270 billion in tax credits for green energy and manufacturing. Now the CBO is projecting the law’s cost at $553 billion. Goldman Sachs predicts that the “law will cost roughly $1.2 trillion — three times more than the official government forecast — and spur trillions more in private-sector investments.”

These estimates are being circulated as evidence of a budgetary problem, but for me, they are hugely hopeful (if true). Several trillion dollars in green investments could save the planet and improve people’s lives. Arguably, Congress recently enacted those policies.

It would therefore be ironic if Democrats’ best path to reelection was to make voters fear Republican ideas while offering largely symbolic proposals of their own, such as background checks for guns. That is like smuggling a new social contract past the voters.

Again, I would not be surprised if “Stop Republican craziness” polls better than “We are the midst of transforming the economy.” But that is a symptom of deeper troubles. The situation was different during the Clinton Administration, when Democrats actually did little except to block some GOP proposals. But during the Biden years, when the party is beginning to transform the economy, not to be able to run on that record is very odd.

See also: class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; using federal spending to strengthen democracy