President Donald Trump at a rally in Manchester, N.H., August 15, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
If history is any guide, the election will not be close — whether the incumbent wins or loses.
Will Donald Trump’s reelection campaign be a nail-biter? No Republican president has ever been reelected with less than 50 percent of the vote. Historically, when a president runs for reelection, it usually isn’t close. Of the 31 times in U.S. history that a sitting president ran for reelection, 19 of those were blowouts: 15 easy wins, 4 lopsided losses. Among the other 12, nearly half offered very little real suspense at the end. Let’s rank the twelve closest presidential reelection races in American history to see how few of them were really that close.
Woodrow Wilson (D), 1916: Won
Popular vote: 49.2 percent (won by 3.12 percent)
Electoral vote: 277–254 (52.2 percent)
Woodrow Wilson was the first of three presidents (all Democrats) reelected with less than 50 percent of the national popular vote. Wilson’s electoral-vote margin over Republican Charles Evans Hughes was, in percentage terms, the closest victory ever by (or against) an incumbent. Wilson expanded his share of the overall popular vote from 1912 but fell off from 435 electoral votes to 277, the steepest drop ever by an incumbent who succeeded in winning reelection.
Wilson would have lost to Hughes if just twelve electoral votes had gone the other way — and he won ten states with twelve or more electoral votes. That included California, which he won by 0.38 percent of the vote; Missouri, which he won by 3.65 percent; and Kentucky, which he won by 5.41 percent. Alternatively, a shift of a little over 4,000 votes in New Hampshire, North Dakota, and New Mexico would have changed the outcome. Wilson won New Hampshire by 56 votes, the second-smallest margin in American history. (Franklin Pierce won Delaware by 25 votes in 1852.) The race was so close that, legend has it, Hughes went to bed thinking he had won. It took days for the count from California to settle the outcome, and third-party votes for the Socialist-party and Prohibition-party candidates held both Wilson and Hughes below 47 percent in California.
Hughes — like William Howard Taft, a careful moderate who stood between his party’s conservative and progressive wings — had been governor of New York and a Supreme Court justice. He may nonetheless have lost the race owing to lingering tensions from the last election, which had divided the dominant Republican coalition. Wilson had won with just 41.8 percent of the vote in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, denied the Republican nomination, ran as a Progressive against the incumbent Taft. Roosevelt’s 1912 running mate, California governor Hiram Johnson, was running for the Senate in 1916; Johnson ran well ahead of Hughes in California, and their relationship was notably frosty, with Hughes snubbing Johnson on a West Coast visit.
All that said, 1916 was a wartime election. Wilson ran on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” and then led the nation into the First World War a month after he was sworn in for his second term.
Grover Cleveland (D), 1888: Lost.
Popular vote: 48.7 percent (won by 0.63 percent).
Electoral vote: 168–233 (41.9 percent)
Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by a hair over Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison, mostly on the strength of winning the popular vote 61 percent to 37 percent across the former Confederacy. He carried only two states (New Jersey and Connecticut) that had not been slave states in 1860. The 1888 election was fought on a very narrow map: It was the third consecutive election in which the outcome was decided by less than 2 percent of the vote in New York, then the nation’s largest state with 36 electoral votes. Harrison flipped two states won by Cleveland in 1884: his own home state of Indiana, where he had served as a senator, and Cleveland’s home state of New York, which was also the home state of Harrison’s running mate, former congressman Levi Morton. In New York, Indiana, and Ohio, the Prohibition-party candidate drew more votes than Harrison’s margin of victory.
Cleveland, New York’s former governor, had won the state by just 0.1 percent of the vote in 1884 after a gaffe insulting the Irish energized Irish voters. A speaker campaigning for Republican James G. Blaine referred to the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Cleveland was a longtime friend of the Irish — he had offered free legal help to Irish rebels who invaded Canada from the Buffalo area in 1867 — and Blaine was notorious for his anti-Catholicism, but the gaffe was regarded at the time as pushing Cleveland over the top. As with Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark, however, the incumbent couldn’t count on another “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” in 1888, and he didn’t get one; he lost his home state by 1.09 percent of the vote.
Cleveland remains a unique case, not just the only president elected to two separate terms, but the only incumbent to lose reelection while winning the popular vote, the only man to win the popular vote in three straight elections without ever winning a majority (with three different running mates), and the only Democrat elected between 1856 and 1912. Like Wilson, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter — and, arguably, like Trump — he seems to stand out as a success story in an era dominated by the opposing party. Like Clinton and Trump, he was also dogged by sex scandals. The 1888 election showed the limits of an incumbent trying to repeat a victory that had been based on fatigue with the governing party and a poorly chosen insult to his side’s voting base.
Gerald Ford (R), 1976: Lost
Popular vote: 48.0 percent (lost by 2.07 percent)
Electoral vote: 240–297 (44.6 percent)
The only president never elected president or vice president, Gerald Ford lost a surprisingly close race in 1976 to Democratic former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Ford would have won the election if he had swung either New York (which he lost by 4.42 percent after controversially refusing to bail out New York City’s fiscal crisis) or a combination of Ohio (Carter by 0.27 percent) and either Wisconsin (Carter by 1.68 percent) or Mississippi (Carter by 1.88 percent). Then again, Ford also won six states by less than 1.5 percent, ten states by less than 2.5 percent. It was a highly competitive race at the end across a broad field of states.
Ford served as vice president for only nine months and had been president for just over two years entering the fall of 1976, during which time he weathered a pair of assassination attempts. He faced a battery of factors working against him, including high inflation, the hangover from Watergate and his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon, and the collapse of South Vietnam. Carter swept the South outside of Virginia, the last time the region united behind a Democrat. Carter benefited from the youth vote, as the oldest Baby Boomers turned 30 in 1976; since the beginning of exit polling, Ford and Mitt Romney in 2012 are the only candidates to win voters age 30 and up and still lose the election.
Ford also suffered the most bitterly contested primary challenge ever mounted against a sitting president, with Ronald Reagan winning 11 of the 28 primaries, 46 percent of the vote, and 47 percent of the convention delegates. Reagan’s conservative revolt captured most of the South and West; Ford would go on to lose nine states in the general election that Reagan had carried in the primaries: Texas (26 electoral votes), North Carolina (13), Missouri (12), Georgia (12), Louisiana (10), Minnesota (10), Alabama (9), South Carolina (8), and Arkansas (6). The nomination remained in doubt all the way to the convention in mid August. Ford, for his part, had to replace his disgruntled liberal vice president, former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, with Kansas senator Bob Dole, seen then as a more conservative, western voice. Reagan in his electrifying impromptu speech at the convention formally buried the hatchet, but simultaneously convinced most of the audience that the party had nominated the wrong man.
The national Gallup poll — then the only major national tracking poll — showed Carter’s modest late-spring lead balloon steadily to a colossal 62–29 advantage coming off the Democratic convention in mid July. Ford rallied at the end, leading the final Gallup poll 49–48, though a debate gaffe about Soviet control of Eastern Europe slowed his momentum.
George W. Bush (R), 2004: Won
Popular vote: 50.7 percent (won by 2.46 percent)
Electoral vote: 286–251 (53.2 percent)
George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection over Massachusetts senator John Kerry may look like a breeze in retrospect: He won the biggest popular-vote share of any Republican in the past 30 years and carried every state south of Maryland, west of Pennsylvania, and east of Oregon except the Midwest holdouts of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Bush won Florida by 5 percent, a wider margin than Kerry’s in California, avoiding a repeat of the agonizing 2000 recount.
But any one of three states (Ohio, Florida, and Bush’s home state of Texas) could have changed the outcome, and Bush carried Ohio by just 2.11 percent. On the other hand, he could have won without Ohio if he had carried either Wisconsin, which he lost by 0.38 percent, or New Hampshire, which he lost by 1.37 percent after winning it in 2000. Some poll-watching pundits were predicting a Kerry victory all the way to the end, and Kerry’s campaign chief, Bob Shrum, notoriously asked after seeing early exit polls if he could be the first to call Kerry “Mr. President.” The 2004 election saw just three states change hands from 2000: While Bush lost New Hampshire, he added Iowa and New Mexico to the Republican column.
The 2004 race was dominated by foreign affairs, with Bush’s early lead dissipating after the story of abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib broke in April 2004. But social issues helped rescue Bush as well, driving big turnout from exurban areas and bringing out religious Ohio voters to amend the state constitution against same-sex marriage (an amendment the Supreme Court later struck down).
John Adams (Federalist), 1800: Lost
Popular vote: Approximately 38.6 percent (lost by 22.9 percent)
Electoral vote: 65–73 (47.1 percent)
Popular-vote totals for elections before 1828 are misleadingly incomplete, since not every state held a popular vote. (Most of the votes counted in 1800 were in Virginia and North Carolina.) That said, the 1796 and 1800 elections between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both very close contests in the Electoral College, close enough that the hardened partisan lines of the 1790s appeared to matter more in most of the country than the tempestuous Adams presidency.
In 1796, Adams won the states north of the Mason-Dixon line 59–14, losing only most of Pennsylvania, while Jefferson carried the southern states 54–12, losing only Delaware, part of Maryland, and a handful of electors in Virginia and North Carolina. In 1800, the South was mostly unchanged, 53–12 for Jefferson, but Adams’s edge in the North fell off to 53–20; he gained support in Pennsylvania, but lost the election owing to the decisive defection of New York’s twelve electoral votes.
New York was at the center of the rift between Adams and the Federalist party’s other most prominent leader, Alexander Hamilton, who published a blistering critique of Adams during the campaign. Its decisive role would also split the Democrats after the election, as Jefferson’s New York running mate, Aaron Burr, would fatefully decide to throw the election to the House, a decision that ultimately led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment and fed the series of events that ended with Burr’s duel with Hamilton and Burr’s treason trial. The defection of New York from the Federalist camp during the Jefferson years would doom the Federalists but would also break the North–South deadlock; not until 1860 would another election split the two regions as cleanly as in the Adams–Jefferson races.
James Madison (D), 1812: Won
Popular vote: Approximately 50.4 percent (won by 2.74 percent)
Electoral vote: 128–89 (59.0 percent)
If 1800 began the breaking of the Federalist party, 1812 was its last hurrah, and its goal was reclaiming New York and Pennsylvania. Those two states, by 1812, had 54 electoral votes between them, up from 39 in the previous election, owing to an intervening census. In 1808, James Madison had won Pennsylvania and split New York’s electoral votes with his running mate, George Clinton. Clinton, the New York governor, who had replaced Burr as Jefferson’s vice president, died in office in April 1812. His nephew, DeWitt Clinton, would go on to run New York as a Democrat; he had served briefly in the Senate during the first Jefferson term. The younger Clinton (then 43 and serving as mayor of New York) accepted the Federalist nomination in 1812, in an effort to fuse the old New England Federalist base with dissident Democrats. Clinton chose as his running mate Jared Ingersoll, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, who had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
The 1812 election was dominated by the War of 1812, declared in June and mostly consisting to that point of an unsuccessful American invasion of Canada and a series of British incursions into the Northwest territories, with the British capturing Detroit but General William Henry Harrison successfully defending Indiana. While the war was a drag on Madison, Clinton’s own supporters were deeply divided.
The nomination of Clinton worked, bringing New York back to the Federalist camp for the last time and winning New Jersey along with most of New England. However, Madison (running with the 68-year-old Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who would also die in office) held onto Pennsylvania and Vermont while sweeping the South and Ohio. Two states — Pennsylvania and Madison’s home state of Virginia — would have given victory to Clinton if they had gone the other way.
Madison was the only president before Wilson to be reelected with a smaller share of the Electoral College than in his initial election.
Harry Truman (D), 1948: Won
Popular vote: 49.55 percent (won by 4.48 percent)
Electoral vote: 303–189 (57.1 percent)
Harry Truman’s reelection in 1948 was enough of a cliffhanger at the last minute to produce the famous “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” headline in the early edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, though Truman ended up winning the Electoral College by 114 votes. It was a surprise to many observers; Gallup showed Dewey pulling ahead in April and never leading by less than 5 points the rest of the way.
There were three key dynamics driving the 1948 election. One, the Democrats had been in power since 1933, and their ideologically diverse coalition was fraying badly: Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats bolted the party on one side, and Truman’s progressive predecessor as vice president, Henry Wallace, bolted on the other. Truman was fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable disintegration of any such long-lasting coalition. Two, Truman had a foil: Republicans had burst the dam in 1946, taking control of both houses of Congress, and used that to push a conservative legislative agenda that Truman could run against. And three, Republicans had their own divisions: The party’s conservatives had wanted to run Ohio senator Robert Taft, who might have run stronger in the Midwest, but the eastern moderate establishment instead renominated 1944’s loser, New York governor Tom Dewey.
The result, with the incumbent party running a fresh candidate against a retread, scrambled the map: Dewey won New York (47 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (35), New Jersey (16), and 19 other electoral votes in Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware, plus Michigan (19) and Oregon (6). Added to his 1944 tally, that would have been enough to beat Truman — but Truman won back Ohio (25 electoral votes), Wisconsin (13), Iowa (10), Colorado (6), and Wyoming (3), all of them Dewey states in 1944, and won the election despite Thurmond bleeding off four Deep South states (South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana). Truman’s Democrats also won back the House, the only president’s party ever to do so after losing it during the president’s term.
Despite being dramatically different men, Truman is in some ways Trump’s best role model: a combative, “give-em-hell” populist (Truman more or less called Dewey a Nazi in late October) who let the other side worry about the East Coast while he cleaned up in the heartland and played on the voters’ fears of putting the other party in charge.
Barack Obama (D), 2012: Won
Popular vote: 51.1 percent (won by 3.86 percent)
Electoral vote: 332–206 (61.7 percent)
As in 2004, people who lived through the 2012 election thought the incumbent could lose, a perception that seems harder to reconstruct in retrospect. It remains debatable whether Republicans picked the best candidate in moderate Massachusetts former governor Mitt Romney, though he prevailed over a mostly weak field of opponents. Romney seemed to be in striking distance in the polls in many key states up until the East Coast was hit in late October by Hurricane Sandy, but that may be more a judgment on the pollsters than on the actual impact of the storm.
In any event, Barack Obama saw both his popular and his electoral vote shrink, an arguably unprecedented condition for a president elected to his second term: Madison’s popular vote is incomplete, Wilson lost electoral votes but gained popular votes, and Franklin Roosevelt saw his popular and electoral votes decline only in his third and fourth reelections. But having won a broad election in 2008, Obama could afford to lose Indiana and North Carolina. Even had Romney won the three states decided by less than 5 percent (Florida by 0.88 percent, Ohio by 2.97 percent, and Virginia by 3.87 percent), he would have fallen short, 272–266.
The story of 2012 was demographic change: Romney won most of the groups that had been key swing-voter blocs in the prior two decades of elections — most of them swing demographics among white voters — but Obama drew a sufficiently large turnout among non-white voters, who supported him overwhelmingly to move the center of gravity away from those prior “swing” voters. Whatever trouble that spelled for Obama’s coalition in 2016, it was a winning formula for reelection.
Benjamin Harrison (R), 1892: Lost
Popular vote: 43.0 percent (lost by 3.01 percent)
Electoral vote: 145–277 (32.7 percent)
In 1892, Grover Cleveland came back for revenge, and he got it, beating Benjamin Harrison soundly despite garnering just 46 percent of the vote, Cleveland’s worst showing in his three races. By 1892, both Cleveland and Harrison were representing decrepit coalitions and agendas that were ripe for rethinking. Harrison had tried to pad his reelection by hurrying the admission of six new states through Congress, but two of them joined four other western states in voting for the Populist-party candidate, James Weaver. The Prohibition party also won 2.2 percent of the popular vote. This might have spelled the end for the two-party system, but the parties proved more adaptable and resilient than that. The economic collapse in 1893 would finish the Cleveland-style business-friendly Democrats, as William Jennings Bryan co-opted the Populist agenda four years later, while William McKinley reinvigorated a new pro-business Republican coalition.
Both candidates replaced their 1888 running mates: Cleveland ran with former Illinois congressman Adlai Stevenson (grandfather and namesake of the Democrats’ 1952 and 1956 nominee), while Harrison replaced Morton with Whitelaw Reid, a New York newspaperman and diplomat. Cleveland again swept the South, winning the popular vote across the old Confederacy, 58 percent to 25 percent; while he barely registered in the West, he won back New York and Indiana, added Illinois (with Stevenson’s help) and Wisconsin, and nearly won Ohio. Harrison never really stood a chance.
George H. W. Bush (R), 1992: Lost
Popular vote: 37.5 percent (lost by 5.56 percent)
Electoral vote: 168–370 (31.2 percent)
Like Truman, George H. W. Bush won in 1988 by extending the life of a huge and declining coalition. In 1992, it unraveled. The “what if” questions about 1992 center on the third-party candidate, H. Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote but carried no states. Perot undoubtedly drew heavily from voters who supported Bush in his 426–111 electoral-vote landslide in 1988, but whether those voters would still have been done with Bush if the only choices had been him and Bill Clinton remains hotly disputed.
In any event, an incumbent who falls off from 53 percent to 37 percent of the vote in four years has a lot of problems. Pat Buchanan’s protest primary challenge illustrated the conservative uproar over tax hikes and other concessions to the Democratic Congress. In June, a Supreme Court with eight Republican appointees voted 6–3 to uphold Roe v. Wade against a challenge by the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, with Bush appointee David Souter joining five other Republican-appointed justices in the majority. With a reeling economy and the end of the Cold War making Bush’s foreign-policy expertise seem obsolete, Bill Clinton flipped California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, and much of the Midwest and South.
William McKinley (R), 1900: Won
Popular vote: 51.6 percent (won by 6.12 percent)
Electoral vote: 292–155 (65.2 percent)
William McKinley’s 1900 victory is the gold standard (so to speak) for a comfortable but not overwhelming reelection. McKinley had beaten William Jennings Bryan by 4.31 percent in the popular vote and 96 electoral votes in 1896, and in their 1900 rematch, he held all his states and added more (including Bryan’s home state of Nebraska), in addition to widening his popular-vote margin by a little more than a point. The economy-focused third parties faded in 1900, though the Prohibition-party candidate got 1.5 percent of the vote. Bryan won only four states outside the South (Nevada, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho), two of them silver-mining states still clinging to his promise to mint unlimited silver money. The main difference in the two elections was that both candidates changed running mates: McKinley fatefully replaced Garret Hobart, who had died in office, with Theodore Roosevelt, while Bryan brought back Stevenson, who, like his grandson, was one of ten men to lose two national elections.
Bill Clinton (D), 1996: Won
Popular vote: 49.2 percent (won by 8.51 percent)
Electoral vote: 379–159 (70.45 percent)
The only “close” thing about Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection is that he won 49.23 percent of the popular vote, the lowest percentage ever for an incumbent winning reelection. And even that, while partly driven by Perot running again and claiming 8.4 percent of the vote, was partly due to Democratic complacency, while Republicans rallied furiously at the end to save their control of Congress. Gallup’s polling had shown Clinton with a popular majority and a double-digit lead nationally among likely voters from beginning to end of the race, with the last poll being the only one in which Bob Dole cracked 40 percent of the vote. The map was still fluid: Clinton gave back Georgia, Colorado, and Montana, the latter two of which had been big Perot states in 1992, but picked up Florida and Arizona.
Here are the 12 competitive reelection races in chart form (given the rough measure used here to rank the closeness of elections, I haven’t followed it in these rankings):
And here’s the other 19:
A little over 14 months from Election Day, it looks for now as if Trump’s low approval ratings will leave him, at best, fighting in a few Rust Belt states to eke out a win in Wisconsin and a bare-minimum Electoral College victory, while worrying that Democrats may pick the lock on the Sun Belt. Nothing about Trump’s presidency has been normal, so we can’t necessarily expect a normal reelection race, even if the 2016 election followed historic patterns. But if history is any guide, the election may not be that close — win or lose.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?
If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.