Incumbent Disasters

When "True One-Termers" lose, they lose bigly. Why didn’t Trump?

WHEN IT COMES to presidential elections, Americans prefer the Devil We Know. If we elect a guy to the White House once, we generally do it a second time (or, in the case of FDR, a third and a fourth). Even vice presidents who ascend to the top job after the death of a sitting president—LBJ, Truman, Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt—tend to win the next election.

Indeed, incumbency is such an advantage that sitting presidents seldom falter. Since Grover Cleveland was elected president for the second time, besting one-termer Benjamin Harrison and his Santa Claus beard in the election of 1892 to become the only Chief Executive to serve non-consecutive terms, there have been only five men elected president once who failed to win re-election: Taft, Hoover, Carter, Bush I, and Donald John Trump. Call them “the True One-Termers.” (Gerald Ford, who was not even elected to be vice president, and only assumed the presidency after the resignation of the disgraced Richard Nixon, doesn’t count).

On those rare occasions when incumbents lose, they lose bigly. Without exception, they hemorrhage votes, receiving significantly less support the second time around, despite the total voting population increasing.

In the case of Taft and Bush I, a popular third-party candidate contributed to their defeat. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign ratfucked William Howard Taft, just as the quixotic candidacy of H. Ross Perot helped sink Poppy Bush. Absent those flies in the ointment, maybe Taft has a better showing, maybe Bush père holds serve.

Both Hoover and Carter suffered unequivocal beat-downs. These were both capable and decent human beings, men of honor, who nevertheless failed so spectacularly in the job that voters could not wait to send them packing. They also had the misfortune of running against Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, two of the most charismatic campaigners the country has ever produced.

  • In 1976, Carter got 40.8 million out of a possible 81.5 million votes.

  • In 1980, Carter got 35.5 million out of a possible 86.5 million votes.

  • Carter fell from 50 to 41 percent of the vote, a nine-point drop.

This means that in that second election, the number of total votes went up, by about four million. The number of votes for Carter went down, by over five million.

Going by percentage of the vote, Bush the Elder fared even worse:

  • In 1988, Bush I got 48.9 million out of a possible 91.6 million votes.

  • In 1992, Bush I got 39.1 million out of a possible 104.4 million votes.

  • Bush I fell from 53 to 37 percent of the vote, a 16-point drop.

Once again, in the second go-round, the number of total votes went up, by almost 13 million. The number of votes for Bush went down, by almost five million. Of note: the presence of a strong third-party candidate in Perot certainly contributed to this dismal showing.

Herbert Hoover had no such excuse, suffering an ass-kicking for the ages:

  • In 1928, Hoover got 21.4 million out of a possible 36.8 million votes.

  • In 1932, Hoover got 15.7 million out of a possible 39.7 million votes.

  • Hoover fell from 58.4 to 39.6 percent of the vote, a staggering 18.6-point drop.

Hoover assumed office at the tail-end of the Roaring Twenties, an age of economic boom. He’d been on the job just seven months when Black Thursday happened, the stock market crashed, and the entire global economy cratered. His laissez-faire economic policies and staunch non-interventionism were the worst possible combination to combat what became the Great Depression. Voters reviled him, blaming him for their economic plight.

Of the last three True One-Termers to lose re-election, Trump is most similar to Hoover. Like Hoover, he is a Republican. Like Hoover, he was perceived as friendly to business. Like Hoover, he presided over a national crisis—the pandemic, in Trump’s case—which his botched, ideologically-driven response only exacerbated. And like Hoover, voters fucking hated him. Trump’s approval rating peaked at 49 percent, was usually in the low 40s or high 30s, and sank to 34 percent his last month in office. Going by the historical data, one might expect his vote total to shrink, as befell Bush I, Carter, and Hoover. Instead, the exact opposite happened:

  • In 2016, Trump got 62.9 million out of a possible 133.7 million votes.

  • In 2020, Trump got 74.2 million out of a possible 158.4 million votes.

  • Trump jumped from 46.0 to 46.9 percent of the vote, a 0.8-point increase.

This means that in that second election, the number of total votes went up, by about 21.7 million. The number of votes for Trump also went up, by over 11 million.

None of this makes any sense—historically, statistically, anecdotally, any way you look at it.

As already shown, presidents who win their first election but lose the second—True One-Termers—tend to get stomped the second time. They lose total votes; they don’t gain them. And they certainly don’t win well over half of the new voters. It just doesn’t happen.

For Trump to have won 11,238,541 more voters in 2020 than he did in 2016, he had to, first, retain every single one of his voters from 2016, and, second, convince 51 percent of the 21,728,450 new voters to Keep America Great. That would be a tall order for FDR, let alone a twice-impeached con man with a 43-point approval rating whose sabotage of the pandemic response led to the death of half a million Americans.

And we can say with absolute certainty that Trump did not retain all of his 2016 voters. I know people who voted for Trump in 2016 but did not double down on their mistake in 2020. Chances are, so do you. This second-election decline, incidentally, happens even with popular incumbents who prevail. Three and a half million fewer Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2012 than in 2008.

Of the true one-termers, Carter fared the best the second time around. Even against a behemoth like Reagan, he managed in 1980 to secure 87 percent of the vote total he got in 1976. So, based on the historical data, we can reasonably project that one out of every ten 2016 Trump voters did not cast their ballot for him a second time. Ninety percent of Trump’s 2016 vote total comes to 56.7 million. That’s how many votes we would expect him to get, as a reviled incumbent on par with Herbert Hoover: 56.7 million. Instead, he managed to win a whopping 74.2 million votes. Look where that puts Trump historically:


1.     Joe Biden / 2020: 81.2 million

2.   Donald Trump / 2020: 74.2 million

3.    Barack Obama / 2008: 69.5 million

4.    Barack Obama / 2012: 65.9 million

5.    Hillary Clinton / 2016: 65.8 million

6.    Donald Trump / 2016: 62.9 million

Even if 60 million of the 62.9 million voters Trump won in 2016 stuck by him, he would have needed to make up the 2.9 million defectors and won 11.2 million new voters. For these numbers to add up, Trump would have needed to win 14 million of the 21.7 million additional votes in 2020.

Look at that list again. To reiterate, Barack Obama, one of the most popular presidents of the last half century, got 3.6 million fewer votes his second time around. And Trump, as beloved as a cold sore, got 11.2 million more? How is that possible?

Think about all the money spent by the Democrats in 2020. Think about the voter drives. Think about the Senate victories in Georgia. Is it really feasible that two thirds of all new voters came out for Trump?

There are only two explanations for this extreme historical anomaly. The first is that the votes were somehow rigged in Trump’s favor. There is ample circumstantial evidence to support this theory, hundreds of data points bolstering the case. What was once a rabbit hole is now a veritable Holland Tunnel. You just have to search for keywords: ES&S, VVPAT, Karl Rove and Anonymous, Chattanooga server, hanging chads, Louis DeJoy. My friend Alison Greene has done yeoman’s work researching all of this. She wrote a fascinating piece on Mitch McConnell’s fishy 2020 election results in Kentucky, which she spoke about on Narativ a few weeks ago, and there’s lots more where that came from. She has file cabinets full of receipts, and she’s very convincing:

Furthermore, Trump himself is a proponent of the rigged election theory—although he asks us to believe math that is even more wackadoodle than the wackadoodle math I’ve previously presented. We know that Trump is a fan of the Nazi tactic of accusing his opponents of what he himself is guilty of. One of the byproducts of MAGA insisting on fraudulent election results and demanding bullshit audit after bullshit audit is that our side will not be able to do the same without seeming to stoop to their level. What if Patrick Byrne and Lin Wood and the MyPillow guy are right that the election was compromised—only, it was compromised in exactly the opposite way that they ardently claim?

I don’t like to think about this, let alone write about it. Frankly, I don’t want it to be true. It’s too depressing, too dispiriting. And even if it is true, we’ll never know. I mean, like, never. The GOP won’t allow January 6 to be properly investigated, a besieging that put their own lives at risk; that corrupt party is going to allow federal investigators to poke around in election systems that might have given them their ill-gained seats?

So let’s examine the second option: Trump really did win that many votes. He really was a historical outlier. There really are that many Americans, spread across all 50 states, who preferred the mob money launderer, con man, and thief, the asshole who knowingly exacerbated a fucking plague, over kindly, sensible Uncle Joe. There really are that many gullible, hateful, racist, sexist, neo-Fascist, star-struck dipshits who voted MAGA in 2020.

How could this be possible?

For one thing, Trump had weapons at his disposal that his True One-Termer predecessors did not. Russia was not using social media to bolster the candidacy of George H.W. Bush. Fox News was not shilling for Jimmy Carter. Dark money did not fund all manner of psy-ops to convince voters that Herbert Hoover alone could fix it. Roger Stone and Steve Bannon were not plying their dirty tricks for William Howard Taft. There was no cult of personality built around any of the previous True One-Termers, none of whom particularly dynamic figures.

For another, there was no viable third party candidate in 2020. Taft lost votes to Teddy Roosevelt, who was running on a third party ticket. Carter lost votes to independent John B. Anderson. Poppy Bush lost votes to Ross Perot. And in recent close elections, Al Gore lost votes to Ralph Nader (2000), and Hillary Clinton lost votes to Jill Stein of the Soviet….er, the Green Party, and/or Libertarian Gary Johnson (2016). There were 7.1 million third-party votes in 2016. Four years later, less than half that number threw their vote away—despite over 21 million more people voting in the election. (One of the 2.9 million third-party voters, reportedly, was propagandist Tucker Carlson, who reportedly cast his vote for Kanye West).

I asked K. Louise Neufeld (@ninaandtito), aka Lou Neu, a self-proclaimed math nerd who once crunched numbers for a major investment bank for a living, to look at the data. She doesn’t think Trump cheated; she believes the anomaly is explicable, that all those people really did go MAGA.

Neufeld notes that across the board, turnout was extremely high—among new voters, and also among registered voters. In California and Arizona, almost 80 percent of registered voters turned up at the polls in 2020, a huge number, and a significant increase from 2016. In Texas, the percentage rose from 59 percent to almost a third (the dismal voter turnouts in the Lone Star State suggests that voter suppression tactics there have done their dread work—and that Dems can turn Texas blue by Stacey Abramsing the place).

“Even with greatly increased voter registration,” Neufeld points out, “turnout as a percentage of registered voters rose dramatically. The pie got way bigger, and the percent of pie getting eaten got bigger too (this is a tortured metaphor that needs work).”

The metaphor works fine. If a normal election is a regular-size pizza, 2020 was one from Benny Tudino’s in Hoboken, where a slice is as long as your arm. In an unprecedented election in terms of voter participation, things were bound to get a little wonky.

And the fact is, Republicans are brilliant at turning out the vote. They always have been. In 2020, their voter drives worked like gangbusters. Sure, there were post-road-to-Damascus conservatives who refused to pull the lever for the Former Guy. But for every Bill Kristol, there were a dozen new voters, or unlikely voters, who were all in for Trump.

“You have to understand that what the Trump people were really, really good at was finding people who never or rarely voted and inspiring them to care about politics,” Lou Neu explains. “They took a bunch of apolitical WWE fans and made politics WWE.”

Fourteen million new voters though? That many? Really? “The answer is that Neanderthals who usually spend their time and money on WWE fandom didn’t have any WWE to watch during covid,” she says. “So Trump made politics the new WWE.”

The silver lining here is that 2020, much like 2016, was a perfect storm. Despite his sad fundraising efforts, Trump is unlikely to run again in 2024, and even less likely to pull a Grover Cleveland and unseat Biden. With a full range of channels to choose from, many of the apolitical wrestling aficionados will not be moved to take to the polls for smirking Ron DeSantis or doe-eyed Kristi Noem. And if Biden’s first six months in office are any guide, he will not be an unpopular incumbent, but just the opposite.

The conclusion to be drawn from Alison Greene’s research is that we have to continue to rail against GOP voter suppression laws, and lobby for hand-counted paper ballots in all elections. And the conclusion to be drawn from Lou Neu’s rebuttal is that we must get our people to the polls—in 2022, for the midterms, when Democrats tend to be lackadaisical, and in 2024 especially.

Whatever the reason for the surge in Trump votes in 2020, the antidote is the same: mass voter turnout. We did just that in November, and the results speak for themselves. The future of democracy depends on Joe Biden not being a True One-Termer.


Photo credit: Presidential portraits of Hoover, Carter, and Bush I.