WHY THE NEW PRESIDENT MAY BE CURSED: A HISTORICAL LOOK AT THE UNHAPPY FATES OF PRESIDENTIAL "CLOSE WINNERS"

By ANDREW WENDER COHEN

Though it's still too early to know who will be the next president of the United States, it might be just the right time for Bush and Gore to begin rationalizing defeat, in case it comes. After all, is Commander in Chief such a great job? From a historical perspective, the loser's sour grapes might be quite tasty in the end.

The Close-Winner's Curse

The history of American presidential elections provides the loser (whomever he may be) with some serious condolences. Instinct tells us that this year's victor, elected without an overwhelming popular mandate, may not accomplish much. But most people don't realize the starkness of the historical data.

In close elections, winners have seldom stayed long in the White House. Consider the following facts:

  • Of the twelve presidents who won close elections (which I define as those where the victor wins the popular vote by less than three percent, or the electoral college by less than five percent), nine presidents failed to serve a subsequent term. I call this the "close-winner's curse."
  • Only three narrow-margin presidents- Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, and Richard Nixon - survived the curse and served a subsequent term in office. And only Jefferson obtained eight years of uninterrupted rule after winning a close election.

Explaining the Curse

  • Sinkers– John Adams (1796), John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and Jimmy Carter (1976)
  • Victims– James Polk (1840), James Garfield (1880), Woodrow Wilson (1916), and John F. Kennedy (1960)
  • Champs– Thomas Jefferson (1800), Richard Nixon (1968), and Grover Cleveland (1884)

 

Sinkers: Close Winners Who Lost the Next Election

Most narrow-margin presidents are Sinkers– victorious candidates who could not sustain their majorities into the next election. The classic example is Jimmy Carter. In 1976, Carter beat Gerald Ford by a scant 2.1% of the popular vote. By 1980, Carter was quite unpopular, besieged by members of his own party and easy pickings for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.

Those of us who remember the seventies will recall the factors that shattered popular faith in the former Georgia governor: the hostages in Iran, the Oil Crisis, and, of course, his embarrassing brother Billy. But such details obscure the broader problems faced by Carter and other Sinkers.

Compared to members of congress, presidents gain only a relatively slight advantage from incumbency. Even initially popular presidents have seen their support erode–some examples are Martin Van Buren, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and George Bush. And a smaller majority in the initial election leaves a smaller margin for error when a less popular president seeks a second term.

In close elections, luck is a more important factor, so close winners tend to be its beneficiaries. For example, the weather and other acts of God may serve their interests. This year the accidental death of Mel Carnahan undoubtedly affected the outcome in Missouri, a key state. But snowstorms and plane crashes are random events that balance out over time. The presidents that I call Sinkers float when they're fortunate (in the initial election), but drown when luck runs out (in their re-election bid).

In other cases, the circumstances of the election itself left the president unelectable. In 1876, despite losing the popular vote by three percent, Rutherford B. Hayes became the president-elect after a special commission awarded him three contested states. This result disgusted so many Americans that President "Rutherfraud" declined to run again in 1880.

John Quincy Adams gained office in 1824 under even more questionable circumstances, winning the election over Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives after losing the popular vote by over 10%. He never recovered from the perception of corruption, and he lost in a landslide in 1828 — another Sinker.

Victims: Close Winners Who Died in Office

Though the sample is small, winners of tight elections appear more vulnerable to the Grim Reaper than other presidents. Though only a quarter of American presidential elections have been close, contested presidents constitute thirty-eight percent of presidential deaths.

Why? There are two possible explanations. The first is that close elections inspire a range of emotions that make assassinations more likely. The perception of a "stolen" election may lead to violence. And in winning tight races, candidates became beholden to unscrupulous individuals and interests. These debts fester if left unpaid, leading to dramatic consequences.

In 1881, a Republican political worker, Charles Guiteau, shot President James Garfield for failing to offer him a government job. Similarly, many of the conspiracy theories surrounding John Kennedy's 1963 murder presume either the resentment of his political opponents, or the anger of shadowy benefactors like Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.

Second, stress makes the presidency an unhealthy occupation, and the pressure of running a government without the overwhelming support of the people can weaken the body. (Might Gore's expanding waistline and Bush's bandaged infection prophesize this grisly conclusion?)

James Polk won by a razor thin margin in 1844, but he ignored his slender mandate and embarked upon a war with Mexico. The experience was so draining that he declined to run in 1848, and died less than five months after leaving office.

Woodrow Wilson faced a similar fate after winning a close contest in 1916. Trying to marshal a reluctant nation behind his foreign policies, he suffered a stroke that eventually caused his death.

Champs: Close Winners Re-elected Against Long Odds

But all is not lost. What can this year's victor learn from the three Champs– the presidents who overcame the close-winner's curse?

Jefferson's example suggests the importance of governing well. How did Jefferson turn his scant majority in 1800 into a landslide victory in 1804? He did an excellent job while in office, allaying the fears of landholders and merchants who believed him a dangerous radical. And he gained further popularity by purchasing Louisiana, a massive tract of land containing the Mississippi River and a good part of the South and Midwest.

Nixon's career, in turn, indicates the importance of capturing disenchanted voting blocs. Nixon barely defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, with third-party candidate George Wallace capturing 13.5 percent of the popular vote and 8.5 percent of the college. But Wallace could not run in 1972, having been paralyzed by a gunman's bullet earlier that year. So Nixon carefully plotted a "Southern Strategy" that allowed him to win southern states he had lost to Wallace four years before.

The next president might heed Nixon's example. Though Nader didn't win any states this year, his small cache of votes did matter. The new leader stands a chance in 2004 if he can enlist Ralph's supporters. So don't be surprised if you see the new president pow-wowing with new Congresswoman Julia Butterfly Hill in Oregon in 2004.

The Comforts of a Shameful Joy

So whoever loses this year can gloat; his victorious opponent is likely to struggle. But perhaps the defeated candidate would prefer to know his own future. Let's turn for a moment from the close winners to the close losers–the candidates who nearly grasped the brass ring. What has happened to the losers in close elections over the course of American history?

Many have faded into obscurity. Does anyone remember Winfield Hancock, the Democratic candidate in 1880? Others, such as James G. Blaine (1884), Hubert Humphrey (1968), and Gerald Ford (1976) remained famous but never secured another nomination.

But a few did return to the limelight. In fact, this year's runner-up can take comfort from the Jefferson, Cleveland, and Nixon presidencies. For these men shared something else–they all lost devastatingly close contests, then arose Phoenix-like to become victors in subsequent elections.

Four years before his triumph in 1800, Jefferson lost a squeaker to John Adams. Likewise, Nixon bowed to Kennedy in 1960, but then nosed out Humphrey in 1968. And, as noted above, Cleveland's defeat in 1888 laid the groundwork for his victory in 1892. Narrow defeat, it seems, prepared them for victory in the future.

Conclusions

History, of course, doesn't predict the future. Indeed, the patterns I've discussed may be nothing more than a statistical illusion– say, the product of a small sample. But if history is any guide, our next president will retain power in 2004 only if he can perform admirably, engage new constituencies, and maintain his health. And if he can't… well four years are better than none.

Andrew Wender Cohen is an Assistant Professor of History at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

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