The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers

April 4, 2011


U.S. forces are fighting three costly, inconclusive wars; unemployment is 8.8 percent and the president’s new budget proposal would double the national debt in a mere 10 years. What a great moment for Barack Obama to declare for reelection.

Obama enters the 2012 race as the clear favorite. His poll numbers are weak but his public respect is solid; his money position is outstanding; even people like me, who think runaway federal borrowing is an error of historic proportions, admire the president. I can see myself pulling the lever for him in 2012, as I did in 2008.

Set aside zip code analysis and Electoral College positioning — what two leading indicators should give Obama pause? The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers.

Presidential incumbency brings many advantages, not least of which is command of the nation’s attention. White House incumbents standing for reelection are 21-7 in American annals.

But recent trends matter most, and recently, incumbents have been on a mere 3-3 streak. Ronald Reagan (1984), Bill Clinton (1996) and George W. Bush (2004) were reelected. But Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H. W. Bush (1992) were defeated when standing for reelection with all the powers and advantages of incumbency. Once, Americans almost always voted to retain an incumbent chief executive. Not anymore. Lately voters have been ornery.

Now factor in spoiler candidates who run for reasons of ego, knowing they can’t win. Carter lost because a third-party vanity candidate, John Anderson, siphoned off liberal voters. The elder Bush lost because a third-party vanity candidate, Ross Perot, siphoned off conservative voters. Plus, in 2000, a third-party vanity candidate, Ralph Nader, threw the election to the younger Bush, away from Al Gore, who prevailed in the popular vote.

That’s three of the last seven presidential elections swung by third-party candidates who were in the race mainly as acts of self-flattery. We live, after all, in an era in which personal promotion often trumps substance.

Right now a three-way 2012 race seems unlikely. But it’s only April 2011. In April 2007, no one was taking a certain junior senator from Illinois seriously as a presidential aspirant.

Suppose Michael Bloomberg — who was a Democrat, and then a Republican, and now is an extremely wealthy Independent — ran a vanity third-party campaign for the White House. He could gain traction as a protest vote for disenchanted Obama supporters. Mr. President, I’d appoint Bloomberg to something important ASAP if I were you.

And what of the likely opposition field? In alphabetical order:

Michele Bachmann. If this nut job gets anywhere near the Oval Office, there will be a mass migration to Canada. Democratic campaign strategists are rooting for Bachmann — she gets the Republican nomination, and the Obama reelection becomes a walkover.

Haley Barbour. A flaming hypocrite, Barbour denounces government spending yet lavishly wastes taxpayer funds on himself.

Newt Gingrich. A blazing-torch-visible-from-orbit hypocrite, it’s hard to believe even one Republican woman will vote for Gingrich, and women are increasingly important to the GOP. Not clear why any man would vote for him, either.

Mike Huckabee. A charming guy with potentially broad appeal. His current job as a cable commentator offers a lot more longevity than being a candidate.

Jon Huntsman Jr. Nobody’s heard of him. He’s an engaging public speaker who makes a fresh impression with a fascinating personal story. Sound like anyone we know four years ago?

Sarah Palin. Her grasp of public affairs is better than pundits acknowledge. But what is her substantive achievement? Palin quit on her first term as Alaska governor. Couldn’t take the pressure of even a single term running a state with one-quarter of one percent of the country’s population. Has tremendous potential for a meltdown.

Tim Pawlenty. No big negatives, which is deceptively important. Not clear what he stands for beyond his own career.

Mitt Romney. Bowled a gutter ball in the 2008 Republican nomination race, but Reagan lost the Republican nomination in 1976 then won on his second attempt. Has uncanny ability to seem phony even when he’s telling the truth.

Rick Santorum. There’s no minimum to the number of votes Santorum could draw.

The wild card:

Michael Bloomberg running as a Republican. This would require significant bridge-building with a party he theatrically resigned from. Paired with a social-conservative running mate, Bloomberg as a Republican might knock Obama from the White House.

Where’s the market opportunity in the contemporary American political marketplace? There is no prominent Roe-supporting, experienced, centrist Republican who’s gone after teachers’ unions and government-worker pensions. There will be if Bloomberg returns to the GOP.

Photo: A screen capture image from a video announcement of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign that was launched on April 4, 2011. Obama, a Democrat who won a sweeping victory over Republican Senator John McCain in 2008 with a message of change, said in a low-key email to supporters that he was filing papers to start his re-election bid in a formal way. REUTERS/


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The president’s new budget proposal would double the national debt in a mere 10 years or less says it all! Next!

Note: our National debt represents 25% of total world debt FYI! 10 yrs fron now=scary! Anyone else think we have a moral obligation to do much better? Obama & family seem like decent folks, but his world view is a big government vision without a way to pay for it-dangerous!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Donald Trump will run as an independent, which will split the anti-Obama vote, and guarantee Obama’s reelection…..unless Trump actually pulls in enough votes to take states in the electoral college. In the latter event, all bets are off.

Posted by Andrewp111 | Report as abusive

When the GOP last took over the White House, they inherited a $236 billion budget surplus, with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. When the GOP left the white house, they left a $1.3 trillion deficit and a projected 10-year shortfall of $8 trillion. So, we should give the GOP back countrol of the White House and expect different results this time? Fool me once, you know the rest.

Posted by Dordogne | Report as abusive

Too early to tell.

As usual, voters tend to hold the President responsible for last minute statistics or events even if they are mostly out of the President’s control. Of course, sometimes, they may be predicted and forestalled by a very objective, astute and brilliantly analytical person, but such a person is not electable nor considered likeable by an average voter.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

“U.S. forces are fighting three costly, inconclusive wars; unemployment is 8.8 percent and the president’s new budget proposal would double the national debt in a mere 10 years.
“even people like me, who think runaway federal borrowing is an error of historic proportions, admire the president. I can see myself pulling the lever for him in 2012, as I did in 2008.’

And what are ‘people like you’? War, the economy, and our kid’s future all take a backseat to some undefined personal issue?

Okay, the world has had it’s laugh at our expense: time for some adult leadership (of any party). (And perhaps some adult op-ed at Reuters.)

Posted by DumbDem | Report as abusive

[…] a usually thing I can contend about this piece from Gregg Easterbook is that I’m positively floored by a stupidity it […]

Posted by George Bush » Blog Archive » The myths that just won’t die | Report as abusive

It hardly matters who is President; the masters of both parties live, as do the elites they represent, in a post-national world. All patriotic bleating or pomp is nothing more than a flashy diversion intended to keep our eyes off the knife they’re all using to cut our guts out.

We all know how this ends, just not when.

Posted by JackMack | Report as abusive

Obama has to win the Democrat nomination first. If there are no serious challengers to the Democrat nomination, then there are no Democrats who love America left, just a bunch of leftist Democrats.

Posted by br549er | Report as abusive

President Obama is a corporatist. Instead of real financial reform we got reform that may not prevent another meltdown. We got Romneycare instead of real health care reform. We got the Bush tax cuts for all, bigger banks than ever, the list goes on. Immelt is advising him on jobs and productivity, while Elizabeth Warren gets shot at. The President has earned all the money he will be getting from his corporate sponsors. Did President Obama, head of the government, try to be fair to public workers? No, he froze their salary without even being asked or even thinking that one size might not fit all. Didn’t even send them a nice letter or make a speech to them. Do you hear him putting in a word for unions that always supported Democrats? No. If Obama’s budget is a GOP starve-the-beast budget and his Tax Rewrite benefits mostly his corporate sponsors and he continues to strut the stage as a War President it will be clear that the audacity of hope is completely down the drain. There are already a lot of disillusioned Independents and Democrats with no reason to be loyal to Obama. Look for a Democratic or third party challenger.

Posted by Saint999 | Report as abusive

I voted for him in 2008 because he said he would change the way business was done in Washington. Turns out he’s just another politician. I will not be fooled again. I welcome all “spoilers”. Down with both parties. Be Americans.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Michael Bloomberg for president. I like it!

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

John Anderson siphoned off liberal voters? Liberal Republicans, maybe….and few…

Posted by kblument | Report as abusive

Your last column was about how we need to stop invading random countries in the middle east and north Africa, and yet you say you would vote for Obama again? How do you defend that position intellectually?

Posted by l3randon | Report as abusive

You all are fools if you think that anyone elected into the Presidency will ever do anything to change the status quo. The citizens of this country are far too distracted and disorganized to effectively do their constitutional duty and make the government work for us. That is why the government works for corporations. The are highly organized and extremely focused. Until the people of this country start boycotting en masse the corporations (and religions) who work against the interests of the public at large. There will be no change.

Posted by berkyjay | Report as abusive

Mr Easterbrook, Obama essentially ran as a “spoiler” in 2008. He claimed to be different, that he was going to change Washington, etc. He turned out to be just another liberal politician intent on redistributing wealth. The tea partiers could have been labeled “spoilers” except… well they won! Now if we can just get a president with tea party credentials we just might avoid runaway inflation and taxation.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Mr Easterbrook, Why don’t you just go ahead and state out loud that you will support and vote for any Democrat and mock and ridicule any Republican?

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

[…] the only thing I can say about this piece from Gregg Easterbook is that I’m absolutely floored by the ignorance it […]

Posted by The myths that just won’t die – Left Blog Feeds- Progressive News | Report as abusive

[…] that is consistent with the myth.  Take for example the myths of spoilers in action.  Last year Gregg Easterbrook wrote that the “decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers” could threaten […]

Posted by politics and language, orwell, third parties, independent candidates, 2012 election, obama, third party, political discourse, myths | Report as abusive

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