Donald Trump isn’t doing very well with the polls. Not to be confused with the Poles, which I generally skip over in favor of “Polish.” Not to be confused with “polish,” of which both my nails and my furniture have desperate need.
Rather I’m talking about those polls, released these days with much fanfare and “Breaking News” banners, that some diminish and others relish. At this writing, Biden has about a 9 point advantage over Trump on both the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics websites, and betting odds are about 3/2 in Biden’s favor.
But firing an American president really is a big deal. Since the beginning of the 20th century, incumbent presidents have won elections 15 out of 20 times. So what about those relatively few times that they lost?
The first one arguably was the most embarrassing. A rupture in the Republican party in 1912 set incumbent William Howard Taft against former president Theodore Roosevelt and his newly minted Progressive Party, leaving the win to democrat Woodrow Wilson and the 40 states he carried. Even Roosevelt did better than Taft, carrying 6 of the remaining 8 states.
The combination of the Great Depression and the charismatic Franklin Roosevelt lost a reelection bid for Herbert Hoover in 1932. The landslide saw the incumbent Hoover receiving less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
After ascending to the presidency without ever having won national office, Gerald Ford faced a serious challenge for the Republican nomination in 1976 from Ronald Reagan, which wasn’t decided until the first ballot at the national convention. Then dragging Nixon and the Watergate scandal with him, Ford lost to fresh faced Jimmy Carter in the general by two points.
By 1980, Carter wasn’t so fresh faced, losing to Ronald Reagan, the charismatic and transformative Republican candidate who defined his party in much the same way FDR had done for the Democrats. It’s interesting also to note the rock/paper/scissors relationship between Ford/Carter/Reagan.
The last time America fired its president was in 1992, a race that included a significant third party candidate in Ross Perot and another new national face in Bill Clinton, with more than a little charisma of his own. Those factors, together with an economic slowdown, saw George H. W. Bush lose his bid for a second term.
So what have we got here? Well, there’s no third party spoiler like in 1912 and 1992. Certainly many voters find Joe Biden appealing for a variety of reasons, but one would be hard put to say that his charisma is on the level with Roosevelt or Reagan, so this isn’t 1932 or 1980.
Could 2020 be similar enough to 1976 to bring about a Trump defeat? Well, within two years after the Republican ticket won over 60 percent of the popular vote and 49 states, both Nixon and Agnew had resigned in disgrace, and Ford was president. And by pardoning Nixon, Ford linked himself directly to the calamity of Watergate.
One could argue that a Trump defeat in November would indicate voters assessed Trump’s administration as a similar calamity to that of Nixon—the difference being Nixon was shamed into resigning and Trump, well, has no shame.
I must confess I rather cringe that so many folks seem to think that firing the president is some kind of ordinary occurrence in our politics. It’s not. Quite the contrary.
Those rooting for Trump can be comforted with that 75 percent election rate for incumbent presidents. On the other hand, when we do fire a president, he’s a Republican 80 percent of the time, so there’s a little something for the Democrats, too.
And so ends today’s challenge to serve as a substitute history teacher. I will now return to more comfortable environs and prepare a discourse on the difference between hanged and hung.