Gary Pearce: History shows how incumbent president could lose

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 6, 2020

By Gary Pearce

Republicans this year might find alarming parallels with the three incumbent presidents to lose reelection in the last 100 years.

All three were dragged down by persistent crises that dominated their final months. Twice, the presidents suffered landslide losses that reshaped politics for decades. The three were Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both 1932 and 1980 were realignment elections.

All faced economic crises. Carter also had the Iran hostage crisis. In the end, voters concluded that all three failed to meet the challenge. Americans voted for new leadership.

For months, President Donald Trump’s handling of COVID-19 — and the economic damage — has hurt him in polls. When he was infected by the virus last week, as the campaign entered its final month, the pandemic again became the biggest issue. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project tweeted: “If he can’t protect himself, how can he protect the country?”

President Carter, who turned 96 last week, had bad timing too. His race against Ronald Reagan was close until the last weekend, the one-year anniversary of the hostage-taking.

That dominated the news, Carter’s support collapsed, and he suffered a historic defeat.

Trump got a similar last-minute break in 2016. On the Friday 11 days before the election, the FBI reopened its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That swayed many late-deciding voters.

Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court fight dominated the news. Then came the debate. The focus shifted to Trump’s insults, his interruptions, his taxes and his stance on white supremacists. Now we’re back to COVID.

Downplaying a crisis can hurt an incumbent. During the Great Depression, Hoover said “the fundamental business of the country is on a sound and prosperous basis.” His vice president said prosperity was “just around the corner.” Last month, Trump said we’re “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.

President Carter didn’t downplay the hostage crisis. He suspended his campaign, hunkered down in the White House and focused day and night on the hostages. That helped him beat Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. But as time went on, Carter looked weak and helpless.

(Note: President Gerald Ford lost to Carter in 1976, but he was an unelected president.)

In 1992, President Bush looked out of touch and unconcerned with the economic recession’s impact on Americans. The perception crystallized in a televised town hall debate when he snuck a glance at his watch.

Could 2020, like 1932 and 1980, bring a landslide and lasting realignment? FDR’s 1932 coalition lasted more than 30 years. The 1980 Republican sweep put politics on a conservative course that has lasted 40 years.

Last week, Democrats were growing hopeful that a blue wave might give them control of the White House, Senate and House and big gains in North Carolina. Gov. Roy Cooper was so confident of reelection he put up Facebook ads boosting Joe Biden. Cal Cunningham’s polls showed him leading Senator Thom Tillis by double digits.

Then came news that Tillis tested positive for COVID and Cunningham had exchanged text messages with a married woman.

Hang on. There’s still a month to go.

Gary Pearce blogs at