A discussion and overview of retrospective elections

Author: Seth C. McKee, Professor, Oklahoma State University

Students should be able to explain the three types of dynamics that American presidential elections usually exhibit when teaching political science.
A vote of support for the incumbent and their party or a reaffirmation by the president, if the president is running for reelection.
The president’s term is limited, so a battle for an open seat (for example, President Johnson was the last incumbent not to run for reelection in 1968).
If it’s an open-seat election, a retrospective contest in which voters punish either the president or his party.
This blog is about retrospective presidential elections, since 2020 was one of them.
The Prevalence Of Retrospective Elections
Three retrospective elections provide a better understanding of what happened in 2020. These are the 1980, 1992, and 2008 retrospective elections.
Independent voters vote against the incumbent president in these types of elections. The result is that the out-party wins the majority of the vote. This results in the election of presidential candidates from out-parties.
Students may also be surprised to learn that a small percentage of voters aligned to the president’s party will vote for the out-party nominee.
Retrospective elections are, in short, negative referendums on the performance and political party of the incumbent president. Voters punish the president, the president’s party, and shift in favor of the other major party in the two-party political system.
H. Ross Perot, a political independent candidate, received 19% of the popular votes in 1992. In 1980, close to 7% of popular vote went for John Anderson (a former Republican).
The 1980 Election
In one of the most memorable debate lines, Ronald Reagan, the Republican challenger, looked directly into the camera to ask “…are your circumstances better than they were four years ago?
How could such a simple question have such resonance with American voters? It was a devastating question, as Democratic President Jimmy Carter understood. Reagan’s question was answered by Reagan’s obvious answer: No.
The last four years of President Carter’s presidency were difficult, to put it mildly. In the popular two-party vote, Reagan won 55% to 45%. Reagan’s victory in the Electoral College was a huge blowout, with 489 votes to Carter’s 49. Experts often made comparisons with the 1980 election if you closely watched the 2020 election cycle.
The 1988 Election
1988 saw the first time that the same political party (the Grand Old Party) won three consecutive presidential elections, under different candidates.
This was when President Reagan’s Vice-President, Republican George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts.
Bush declared, “Read my lips! No new taxes!” in 1988 when he accepted his party’s nomination.
Unfortunately, due to federal deficits and the economic recession of the early 1990s, President Bush made a deal with congressional Democrats. They agreed to raise taxes in the hope of restoring economic growth.
As 1992 approached, the economy was slowly recovering but not fast enough to satisfy most American voters. Therefore, President Bush didn’t get the bipartisan policy needed to improve the economy.
1992 Election
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was President Bush’s Democratic opponent in 1992. He harped on the economy.
H. Ross Perot, an Independent candidate, blamed the country’s debt and deficits upon the fiscal irresponsibility by both major parties. This attracted a lot of independent voters to him.
It was remarkable to see how strongly the electoral tide turned against Bush, a president who had a high approval rating of over 80% after the 1990-91 Gulf War. The 1992 popular vote was split in three ways: 43% for Clinton, 38% for Bush and 19% to the Independent Perot. Clinton defeated Bush in Electoral College 370 – 168.
Voters ended the presidency of President Bush. The economy was growing but not fast enough. Perhaps President Clinton owes his predecessor a substantial debt of gratitude. The economy boomed during his two terms.
2000 Election
The 2000 open-seat election, which took place in 2000, gave Al Gore, the Democratic loser, and Bill Clinton’s Vice-President, more than half a million votes.
A margin of 537 votes in Florida saw George W. Bush, Republican governor of Texas, win the Electoral College with 271 votes compared to Gore’s 266, One must win at most 270 electoral votes.