In between all the poll reading, interpreting, and the millions of words spent on commentary and forecasting, analysis of the 2024 presidential election could be best foreseen the same way 2016 could have been, through the lens of history. History is often our best guide and would have seen us past the hysteria of the moment in 2016 and reminded us that “ “ elections (i.e., elections where the incumbent party in power must get re-elected but with a new candidate, a successor) are the hardest ones to win in presidential politics. Just ask Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Al Gore, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon in 1960. Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, only Harry (then already a president for three plus years and more accurately an incumbent) and George H.W. were elected in “successor” elections for their party. That bodes well for Joe Biden, doesn’t it? Not so fast. In what is shaping up to be a re-match of 2020, unless something dramatically shifts in the next six months, we have a few different historical lessons that better inform 2024. History also tells us that incumbent presidents usually win re-election.
Three times in post-Civil War American history and five times overall, the primary two candidates have done a rematch or a re-run election. In, incumbent President William McKinley dispatched his Democratic challenger William Jennings Byran in a similar fashion as, and in, President Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson re-ran nearly the same election as 1952. In 1828 Andrew Jackson easily defeated incumbent president John Quincy Adams after the controversial 1824 result, and in 1892, Grover Cleveland defeated incumbent president Benjamin Harrison after a very close 1888 result, part of a series of close elections in the last quarter of the 19th century. Ask yourself whether Biden resembles McKinley, who found a way to add to the Republican coalition that had barely been winning elections in the years prior. Is he a national hero like Eisenhower? Or does he resemble the shaky coalitional foundations of one-term presidents Quincy Adams and Harrison?
If Donald Trump succeeds at winning back the presidency in 2024, he will join a list of one — Grover Cleveland, that, if turned, plays against the incumbent party in the White House. Like in 2016, and unlike in 2020, a significant primary and third-party challenge is looking likely, and this will play against the incumbent while Trump’s third coalition holds strong. In fact, Trump’s third run looks to be following Grover Cleveland and Richard Nixon’s third run, which were the most robust manifestations of their coalitions through the electoral college and in the popular vote in Nixon’s case. who was both the 22nd and 24th president. In returning to the presidency, Cleveland was aided along with a significant third-party vote from the Populist Party candidate James Weaver. This significant third-party vote, regardless of where its ideological orientations lie, tends to complicate re-election matters for the party that is in the White House. This is one reason why the third-party challenge, along with the primary challenge, is one of Professor Allan Lichtman’s thirteen keys to the White House.
Even in a close loss by just over 40,000 voters across three states, Trump managed to increase his raw vote total by 11 million voters to 74 million, the largest ever received by an incumbent president. He grew his percentage total to 46.80% from 45.93%. Biden’s win margin was more or less decided by the third-party voters from 2016 breaking his way. As discussed, if that third party vote, whether for Green Party candidate Cornel West or a potential No Labels candidate (who have claimed if it were a Biden-Trump rematch, they’d run a candidate ), breaks above 5 percent, Biden is going to have to make some new history if he’s going to get re-elected. Before even getting into voter sentiments on the economy, inflation, immigration, crime, foreign policy, and the overall direction of the country, or the fact that Donald Trump has never polled this well against either Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton — Trump is up 0.6 in the RealClearPolitics polling average as of July 3, 2023 — a look at history and the key test of Trump being the only politician in America who can draw big crowds and assemble a coalition that has shown up for him by a larger margin every time in two, and possibly soon, three elections, and you have potential for Trump’s third run being his strongest one yet. President Trump would take a page from Democrats Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland, and Republican Richard Nixon, in capturing the White House in a historic third run that proves to be the most potent version of the Trump populist-conservative coalition that is remaking American politics.