Since 1851, the holder of the America’s Cup trophy has lost only four times. The structure of the race requires challengers to compete against each other to determine who will go head to head with the champion. While teams exhaust themselves vying for a chance to race the incumbent, the team with the trophy need only worry about the final race.
The ability to focus on the ultimate goal is key to presidential politics, too. Since World War II, the only sitting presidents who have lost re-election bids have first had to overcome challenges within their own party.
After Republican President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Vice President Gerald Ford served out the remaining three years of Nixon’s term and ran for election in 1976. At that year’s GOP convention, Ford barely bested Ronald Reagan before going on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
After Carter’s first term, he was up for re-election in 1980, but Sen. Edward Kennedy refused to drop out of the race for the Democratic Party nomination, forcing Carter into one of the nastiest convention fights in recent history. Carter won the nomination, but lost the election to Reagan.
While he ultimately didn’t get many delegate votes, Pat Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992 forced the party to incorporate more socially conservative planks into its platform and earned Buchanan the position of keynote speaker at the convention, where he delivered his cringe-worthy and divisive “culture war” speech.
While a challenge by a member of one’s own party is a prerequisite to an incumbent’s defeat, the opposite also is true: sitting presidents with no intraparty opposition have, since at least WWII, always won re-election (Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004).
And now we have President Barack Obama up for re-election with no Democratic opposition. He is facing Mitt Romney, who had to endure a bruising primary and couldn’t get all four wheels on the ground until after fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum “suspended” his campaign on April 10. In the meantime, Obama’s team had continued its ground game and quickly took advantage of the fact that Romney looks like “the guy who laid you off,” as Mike Huckabee put it.
At the Republican National Convention last week, the party worked overtime to make him likable, though whether they succeeded remains to be seen. But the fact that they had to chase the “human” factor at the expense of any policy substance whatsoever gives the Democrats an opening to define Romney’s policies, too. And, if history is any guide, sail right in to re-election.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was corrected on September 4, 2012
The September 4 column “History gives incumbent Obama lead” incorrectly stated that Dwight Eisenhower defeated Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. In fact, Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in that election, and Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson four years later.