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A Vicious Cycle

Increased polarization makes it more difficult for presidents to govern, which feeds more polarization.


Unrelenting: Partisan conflict.(UPI/Alexis C. Glenn)

In modern politics, is it possible to be the president of more than half of the United States?

Like George W. Bush in 2004, President Obama heads into his renomination convention locked in a very close race. That doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. Actually, it is.


Throughout American history, presidential reelection campaigns have usually produced decisive results—one way or the other. Presidents who win reelection have often done so in landslides: Think Franklin Roosevelt (1936), Dwight Eisenhower (1956), Richard Nixon (1972), and Ronald Reagan (1984). And those who are defeated are often rejected by wide margins: William Howard Taft (1912), Herbert Hoover (1932), and Jimmy Carter (1980).

Close races involving incumbents have been rarer, especially since the turn of the 20th century. Starting with the formation of the modern party system in 1828, 17 presidents (including vice presidents who succeeded to the top job) have won a second term. All but four won the popular vote by at least 7 percentage points; 10 won by double digits. The eight incumbents who were defeated over that period had some tighter contests. Three in the 19th century lost relatively close races. But Taft, Hoover, and Carter all suffered popular-vote landslides. With independent Ross Perot splintering the vote in 1992, incumbent George H.W. Bush stayed closer to Bill Clinton, but only Gerald Ford in 1976 experienced a truly close popular-vote defeat in the 20th century.

Reelection races that produce even a reasonably close Electoral College split are more unusual still. Until 2004, only six reelection campaigns provided anything like that (three of them from 1888 to 1900, the earlier period most like ours). From 1932 to 1996, Harry Truman in 1948 was the only reelected president who faced even a relatively close Electoral College contest; besides Ford, the losers all endured electoral-vote blowouts as well.


Bush’s reelection in 2004 departed dramatically from this pattern. Measured as a share of the popular vote, the Republican defeated Democrat John Kerry by the smallest margin of victory (just 2.5 percentage points) for any reelected president since 1828. Bush also won just 286 Electoral College votes, only 53 percent of the total at stake that year. That was the second-smallest share of the available electoral votes won by a reelected president since the 1804 adoption of the 12th amendment separated the vote for president and vice president. (Woodrow Wilson  captured just 52 percent in 1916.)

Eight years later, Obama confronts a comparably competitive reelection. It’s possible that the Electoral College will break for the winner more decisively than it did in 2004. But absent a decisive late development, few strategists on either side would be surprised if the popular vote divides between Obama and Mitt Romney at least as narrowly as it did between Bush and Kerry.

Is that just coincidence? Statisticians would caution that two consecutive close reelections hardly prove a pattern. But other evidence points toward the emergence of a more rigid electoral alignment that sentences our chief executives, at best, to serve as president of only half of America (a phrase I first heard years ago from Will Marshall, founder of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute).

These close reelection campaigns are a product, above all, of the intense partisan (and increasingly racial) polarization now infusing our politics. Presidents today face almost immediate resistance from voters in the opposite party. Obama’s approval rating among Republican partisans fell below 30 percent by February 2009. Clinton and Bush experienced comparably rapid declines (although the latter saw a reprieve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks). Once a president’s support falls that far with voters in the opposite party, legislators from that side find it difficult to back him on any major initiative. This frames every legislative effort as a party-line fight; in a feedback loop, this conflict further erodes a president’s approval in the opposite party, making congressional bipartisanship even tougher. All the while, overtly partisan media and pugnacious interest groups eagerly fan the flames.


The result is a steady decline in a president’s ability to poach support from the opposite party. Gallup polls found that Eisenhower averaged a 54 percent approval rating among Democrats in the year before his reelection; for Nixon, the number was 39 percent. George W. Bush averaged 15 percent approval among Democrats in the year before his reelection. Obama’s average among Republicans this year is 11 percent.

Amid such unrelenting partisan conflict, both Obama and Bush displayed reluctance to break from their party with centrist policies that might attract the relatively few true independents. That helps explain why neither man could broaden his coalition in office, leaving each to slog through a trench-warfare reelection. (Bush’s Iraq war and Obama’s tough economy obviously contributed, too.) As the lines harden between the parties, incumbents in the years ahead may find it as easy to scale the Himalayas as to approach the towering reelection margins of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. Presidents presiding over a nation divided almost exactly in half may become more the rule than the exception in our intractably polarized politics. Plarized politics. 

This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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