Politics and Governance

Published on November 30th, 2014 | by Michael Gaudini

The Incumbency Disadvantage

This Op-Ed is part of a series of Op-Ed dialogues with partnering public policy schools. 

The last few years have not been kind to Democrats. They kicked off the decade by losing legislative power to Republicans at both the state and federal level – and followed it up this year by ceding even more ground. The good news is they may have a decent shot at winning the presidency again in 2016. That’s also the bad news.

It is still too early to determine how future elections will ultimately play out. However, there are some long-term trends that, if they hold, could impact the election: namely, voter turnout and voter fatigue with the incumbent party.

Voter turnout in presidential election years tends to favor Democrats, when certain parts of the Democratic coalition – notably young and minority voters – are more motivated. Indeed, the Republicans have only scored a majority of the popular vote once in the last six presidential elections. That’s over 20 years of near-Democratic dominance in presidential elections. [1]

Additionally, the Democrats seem to be lining up behind a chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton, while the Republicans seem to have a crowded field. If the election plays out this way, the Republican candidate may have to endure a bruising primary while the Democrat (in this case, Clinton) focuses all her firepower on the general election.

Finally, Democrats may be able to make inroads with independent voters on certain issues, if some of the referenda voters passed in 2014 are any indication. For instance, many voters who cast their ballots for Republican candidates also voted to increase the minimum wage – an issue for which many Democratic candidates have been campaigning.

These factors could give Democrats an edge in 2016. That’s the good news. The bad news, for Democrats at least, is that winning in 2016 may put them at a disadvantage for the next decade or so.

There are two main reasons for this possibility: voter fatigue and redistricting.

Simply put, Americans do not like to stick with the same political party for too long. Governing is difficult and voters are often keen to remember an administration’s failings at the ballot box and opt to ‘give the other guy a try.’

That is why the president’s party almost always loses congressional seats in the midterm election of his second term (President Bill Clinton being the only exception in modern history). It is also why the last time Americans re-elected two different presidents from the same political party back-to-back was in the early 1800s, when they sent Democrats James Madison and James Monroe to two full terms each.

If Democrats win a third consecutive term in 2016, they may have to deal with fatigued supporters and energized opponents in 2020. A 2020 loss could have major consequences, as that is when the states are due to start designing next decade’s state and federal legislative districts. This process, known as redistricting, could help the winning party in 2020 control federal and state legislative seats for years. [2]

So, how do the Democrats avoid a Republican-led redistricting in 2020? They can demonstrate that they can govern effectively. Polls show that most Americans are tired of the paralyzing dysfunction in Washington and want our nation’s leaders to compromise and solve the nation’s problems.

For the Democrats, this means wielding the presidency effectively, as they are unlikely to have another shot at controlling the U.S. Congress in the immediate future. The American public is already disillusioned with the Obama administration. If fatigued voters opt to give the Democrats another crack at governing in 2016, they would be wise to govern like their future depended on it – because it might.

[1] President George W. Bush won the presidency twice, but he only received a majority of the popular vote in one of those elections.

[2] For a good example of how redistricting can help parties maintain power, consider Pennsylvania. In 2012, more Pennsylvanians voted for Democratic candidates for U.S. House of Representatives than for Republican candidates. Despite this, Pennsylvania Republicans outnumbered their Democratic colleagues in the U.S. House by a margin of 13-5. Pennsylvania Democrats actually lost a seat in the House that election.

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About the Author

Michael Gaudini

is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He occasionally posts his own thoughts about politics and policy online at http://mikegaudini.com/diniverse. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mgaudini.



One Response to The Incumbency Disadvantage

  1. ChrisM says:

    Incumbency is an advantage in an election. President Carter even with all his mistakes came close to beating Ronald Reagan. In the end his poll numbers came up fast. President Ford was the same way with Jimmy Carter.

    Chris
    Owner CEL Financial Services
    My website includes an Income Tax Glossary

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