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The Politics of Incumbent Rejection (Michael Barone)


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Jewish World Review

Michael Barone

Dec. 22, 2023

 At a time when voters have rejected the party of the incumbent president in the last two elections, and in which current polling has the incumbent trailing, both parties seem bent on nominating two men who have served as president and about whom substantial majorities of voters have negative feelings. What gives?

You could argue that each party is trying to manipulate the other into nominating a candidate whose liabilities are well known to the public. Certainly, Democrats' prosecutions of Donald Trump have had that effect.


This is not the first time voters have been rejecting incumbents. In a dozen years, four incumbents were ousted — Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. One reason was broken promises: LBJ campaigned as a peace candidate and made war in Vietnam. Nixon campaigned on law and order and violated the law. Ford introduced himself as a healer and pardoned Nixon, and Carter campaigned as an outsider and defended insider economic and arms control policies.


Changes in the current close partisan divisions tend, sooner or later, to offset each other. Affluent college graduates have become more Democratic — a process begun in the Northeast, West Coast and Chicagoland in the 1990s, increasing countercyclically in 2004 in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and winding up with metro Atlanta and metro Phoenix swinging Democratic in 2020.

Offsetting this, Hispanics and black people without a college degree have been trending at least a little more Republican than before — a process begun in George W. Bush's Texas in the 1990s, delayed by the Obama candidacy but continuing countercyclically (and unnoticed by most of the political press) in 2020, and threatening to crescendo against Biden in 2024. Causes favored by voters moving toward Democrats have repelled others now moving toward Republicans.

The result is an election with an unpredictable outcome that will surely leave most people convinced the country is on the wrong track.

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