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A Tale of Three Possible Outcomes

So much #losing.
October 27, 2020
A Tale of Three Possible Outcomes
Maryland residents wait in line to vote at the Bohrer Park Activity Center on October 26, 2020 in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Today marks the first day of early in-person voting in the state of Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the last century, three presidents have lost re-election bids for a second term: Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Each of these losses was different from the others, and each brought its own distinctive after-effects.

Since it now seems likely that Donald Trump will follow in these three one-term presidents’ footsteps, let’s take a quick look at their defeats. (And I of course stipulate the usual caveats: Today’s is a very different political world, the number of examples is so small that you can’t get too much guidance, each case is sui generis, etc.) They could at least be suggestive for what happens next, assuming a Trump defeat next week.

Let’s go in backwards order:

1992: Retirement

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush lost by 5.6 percentage points to Bill Clinton—a defeat, but not a rout. There was no change in the party composition of the Senate, and Republicans (helped by redistricting) actually picked up nine House seats.

Voters were tired of Republican rule after 12 years of Reagan-Bush, and they were reassured that Clinton wasn’t seeking to undo the positive aspects of that period. And, of course, the Cold War had ended. So 1992 was a “time to move on” kind of election, in which the voters chose to consign President Bush to an involuntarily early retirement. Internally, the Clinton campaign even talked about their election narrative this way: They wanted to convince voters that it was time to thank Bush for his service, give him his gold watch, and wish him well as the country moved on. The election wasn’t really a repudiation of the Republican party or the conservative movement as a whole.

And, sure enough, Republicans promptly took over both Houses of Congress in 1994, held them for the rest of the decade, and George W. Bush (barely) won the presidency in 2000. Though it didn’t seem so at the time to those of us involved at the time (!), 1992 was a pretty gentle re-election defeat.

1980: Rejection

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan by 9.7 percentage points. And Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter century, picking up 12 Senate seats, along with 34 House seats.

The 1980 election marked a clear rejection of the Carter presidency. And the rejection lingered: Reagan and Bush would go on to win the next two presidential elections, easily. Some of the policy changes put in place during the 1980s had a lasting effect, and Bill Clinton didn’t campaign on reversing many of them.

So the 1980 election had consequences, with some structural political changes: It created a class of party-switching Reagan-Democrats, who became a permanent part of the Republican coalition. And it marked the modern conservative movement’s conquest of the GOP and its first time in power.

All of that is important. But 1980 wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, either a realigning election or a transformative one. Its after-effects—which were significant—were measured in decades, rather than generations.

1932: Repudiation

In 1932, President Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt by a 17.7 percent margin in the popular vote. Republicans also lost 12 Senate seats and 97 House seats.

1932 was a watershed election, one of the three or four big realigning elections in U.S. history. It resulted in policy by the New Deal, which fundamentally changed the American political, social, and economic compacts.

Politically it was followed by Democratic control of the presidency for the next 20 years and then, after an Eisenhower hiatus, another 8 years—along with control of Congress for almost that entire period. And after FDR crushed Alf Landon in 1936, it also led to a change in the character of the Republican party, with Willkie, Dewey, and Eisenhower as GOP nominees from 1940 until 1960.

In a transformative election like 1932, even what might have seemed important legacies at the time tend to get reversed. Hoover had three Supreme Court appointments in his one term, and the Court did then put some roadblocks in the way of the New Deal. But after FDR’s reelection and the threat of court-packing, those collapsed. By FDR’s third term, our government and public policies were very different from what had prevailed in Herbert Hoover’s America.

The implications are obvious: Size of defeat matters. A Trump defeat by 5 or 6 points in the popular vote, say, and especially one in which Republicans hold the Senate, would look somewhat like 1992. A defeat by 8 or 9 points, with the loss of the Senate, would be more reminiscent of 1980. A double-digit tsunami extending even to the loss of Republican strongholds such as Texas or Georgia, accompanied by a higher number of Senate seats flipping, might begin to look more like 1932.

Consider three alternate Wednesday, November 4, headlines:

  • “Trump loses presidency as Midwest flips; GOP holds Senate.”
  • “Trump defeated by big margin; election called early as Florida and North Carolina go to Biden; Democrats win Senate.”
  • “Biden wins by double digits in popular vote; rout extends to victory in Texas; Democrats control Senate easily.”

The initial reactions to these would be very different. But so, probably, would be the lasting effects. One would be a defeat for Trump, the second a rejection not just of Trump but perhaps of Trumpism. The third would open up the possibility for a re-making of the GOP and of conservatism itself.

Of course, history doesn’t repeat itself. It doesn’t even rhyme. And election consequences don’t move in a straight line from size of victory to impact on our politics. But it does seem likely that next week not just the fact of victory, but the margin of victory, will matter.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.