Does Incumbency Favor Bush?
Two well-regarded pundits have now opined on the prospects of President Bush. Allan Lichtman, using a model that takes into account 13 different factors, has concluded that President Bush has a slight edge in November. Yale professor Ray Fair, using a less nuanced model that focuses mostly on economics and takes into account just six factors, predicts that President Bush will win the election with 57.4 percent of the popular vote. Lichtman has accurately predicted the winner of the popular vote in every election since 1984. Ray Fair's model accurately accounts for every election victory since 1960 with the exception of 1992.
Both Lichtman and Fair concede that the 2004 election might not go as they anticipate.
The economy could tumble into a double-dip recession, one of several potential scandals could afflict the president, and events in Iraq and Afghanistan could negate his successes abroad.
Given the current prediction of the equation that Bush will get over 57 percent of the two-party vote, does this mean that a Bush victory is a sure thing? The answer is no. First, the prediction is based on a particular set of economic forecasts (the current forecasts from my economic model), and if the economy does not do as well as this set says, the vote prediction for Bush will go down. Second, even if the equation is correctly specified, it makes on average an error of about 2.4 percentage points each election (called the"standard error"). Third, the equation may be misspecified. This is where the pitfalls come in.
[One] possible pitfall is that the equation is misspecified because it does not have a job growth variable in it, only an output growth variable. Historically output growth and job growth are so highly correlated that very similar estimates are obtained using either. They are too highly correlated for one to be able to estimate separate effects. If in 2004 output growth is fairly good, but job growth is not, this would lead the equation to be off if job growth is in fact more important in voters' minds than output growth.
Both Lichtman and Fair are right to be cautious. In a fluid political environment like today the old models may be in error. Already in the last few years, as James Taranto recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, conventional wisdom has been turned on its head repeatedly. In 2000 President Bush won the presidency without taking California; no Republican had done that since James Garfield. Bush was also the first Republican to win the White House without taking Delaware since the election of 1888. And in 2002 Republicans gained seats in both the House and the Senate in the off-year elections; that's only happened once before in the last century: in 1934.
The most obvious factor in the election is Bush's incumbency; both Fair and Lichtman say Bush's status as an incumbent is a factor in their calculations giving him an edge in November. In the twentieth century ten incumbents won election,* five lost.** Incumbency is usually therefore considered an advantage. But there's a caveat and it applies in Bush's case. Incumbents presiding over controversial wars usually lose. If they are not themselves up for re-election, the nominee of their party loses. After the First World War ended on a sour note with a peace treaty at Versailles that few liked, the Democrats lost the election, Woodrow Wilson being succeeded by Warren Harding in a landslide. The next unpopular war was Korea. Democrat Harry Truman, fearing he would lose (he was down to 23 percent in the polls) chose not to run for re-election. He was succeeded by Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican who won in a landslide. In 1968 Democrat Lyndon Johnson chose not to run because of Vietnam. He was succeeded by Republican Richard Nixon.
Given the record of war presidents in the twentieth century, incumbency would appear to be less of an advantage to President Bush than it might be otherwise. If one takes into account the war presidents who chose not to run for re-election because they feared defeat--presidents who in fact were succeeded by members of the other party--the advantage shifts decidedly against war presidents. Counting these incumbents or their party's replacements as losers brings the total number who faced defeat in the past century to seven. In other words, incumbency is a disadvantage when the public has turned against a war.
Lawrence F. Kaplan argued in the New Republic last year that it is not war per se that turns Americans against presidents. Nor is it battle casualties. Americans will tolerate casualties. What they won't tolerate is defeat:
Survey data dating back half a century consistently shows that what determines the public's willingness to tolerate casualties has little do with casualties themselves. Specifically, polls demonstrate that Americans will sustain battle deaths if they think the United States will emerge from a conflict triumphant, if they believe the stakes justify casualties, and if the president makes a case for suffering them.
Americans have not concluded that the Iraq war has been lost. But the polls would appear to suggest that Americans increasingly are drawing the conclusion that the war is not being won. A turning point seems to have been reached in April when Falluja was under assault. Polls since April show that Americans consistently disapprove of Bush's handling of the Iraq war. A CBS/NYT poll at the end of June indicated that 60 percent disapprove of his management of the war. Most still believe it was right to go to war. This number may change by November if the situation does not improve.
The public in contrast approves of Mr. Bush's other war: the war on terrorism. The question is which war they'll judge him on: Iraq or the genral war on terrorism. Of course, the Bush administration considers these two wars different faces of the same coin. The public in 2003 clearly shared this view. Whether they still do is uncertain.
Incumbents usually possess an advantage because of their ability to control events. Time and again they have used this power to affect the outcome of elections. Thus, in 1972 President Nixon sent Henry Kissinger out to tell a press conference that peace in Vietnam was near. But unpopular wars are usually outside the control of presidents, as both Truman and Johnson discovered. Only Nixon among the presidents who presided over unpopular wars in the last century was able to manipulate public opinion in his favor.
Election 2004 is a referendum primarily on George W. Bush's tenure in the White House. Many factors will shape the way the public votes. Incumbency is just one of those factors. Even though it would seem at first glance to favor Bush, it probably doesn't unless the war in Iraq begins to look like a victory--and soon.
*Incumbents who won election in the twentieth century include: Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton.
**Incumbents who lost: Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, George Herbert Walker Bush.
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