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incumbent

incumbent

One who already holds a political office. Usually, in US politics, the word incumbent refers to the sitting official who is running for re-election.

A lot of ink has been spilled about whether the incumbent has a better chance of winning elections than a challenger does. In presidential races, at least, the incumbent has historically had a strong advantage. In the course of US history, only ten presidents have run for re-election and lost. 

In the 20th century, the presidents who tried and failed were William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. So far, every president in the 21st century has won re-election.

It’s only natural that the incumbent should have an edge over the competition, experts say. Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, told NPR:

Incumbents have the following advantages. Name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters’ inertia and risk-aversion.

The website Open Secrets has also pointed out that incumbent members of Congress have a strong advantage when it comes to being re-elected. In the House of Representatives, re-election rates hover somewhere between 90 and 100 percent most of the time, only occasionally dipping down to around 80 percent. In the Senate, rates are a little bit more volatile, with a few major dips during politically charged years (as in 1980, for example, when President Reagan swept into the White House). Still, even accounting for those dips, the incumbent is overwhelmingly favored.

Most pundits agree that when it comes to electing the president, voters are overwhelmingly making their decisions based on the economy. As NPR noted in early 2020, that fact may hand President Trump the advantage:

Every presidential election revolves around this simple question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? For most people — at least in terms of the economy — the answer is yes. Unemployment has continued to tick down the last few years, and the stock market is booming. Gross domestic product growth is not what Trump wanted, but fears of a recession have not materialized. And notably, wages have risen faster for low-income workers since 2018 than for others.

Of course, NPR’s piece came out well before the coronavirus pandemic, and its impact on the US and global economy.

It’s worth noting that the presidents who lost re-election in the 20th century almost all presided over struggling economies. Herbert Hoover, of course, came into office in 1929, the year that the stock market tanked and ushered in the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter presided over a period of rampant inflation (or “stagflation”) and soaring oil prices, which made it difficult for the government to continue most of its social spending programs. 

Last but not least, George H.W. Bush presided during a recession; inflation and oil prices were not a huge problem, but unemployment soared. The president was also widely seen as oblivious to the country’s economic woes – and Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, never missed a chance to bring it up. 

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