Donald Trump is officially a one-term president, the first to fail a reelection bid in nearly 30 years. But history shows his loss isn’t surprising, given the circumstances.
One-term presidents used to be a lot more common. Take the period between 1837 (when Andrew Jackson’s second term ended) and 1860, for example — no president served more than one term. And between 1900 and 1932, we had seven presidents, only one of whom served two full terms. (Some died in office, some lost reelection, and some chose not to run for another term.) But in the modern era, presidents have increasingly left office because term limits prevent them from staying, not because the voters have turned them out.
One of the major questions about one-term presidents is whether their fates are shaped mainly by their actions and political failings, or primarily by conditions beyond their control. This is, of course, a tricky question to answer, as there are some traits one-term presidents seem to share — a bad economy, poor leadership — but it’s hard to know how much any of those factors are actually within their control.
Let’s start with the biggest factor that ties one-term presidents together: a major economic downturn. Herbert Hoover, who was president at the start of the Great Depression, is perhaps the most extreme example. It’s estimated that unemployment during the Great Depression was around 20 percent or more, and thousands of banks failed. And although Hoover did take measures to address the crisis, his view that voluntary programs were preferable to direct government involvement in stabilizing the economy ultimately cost him. More recent presidents like Jimmy Carter, who was in office during a less severe but still serious economic recession, also paid for it at the ballot box. Similarly, the same inflation problems that plagued Carter had previously dragged down Gerald Ford, who had lost to Carter four years earlier. And the rising unemployment in 1992 quickly eroded support for George H.W. Bush in that year’s election, even after he had been quite popular throughout his presidency.
The importance of the economy to a president’s reelection bid also hinges on timing. When a crisis or a recession hits in a reelection year, that tends to spell trouble. In contrast, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower both weathered recessions during their time in office, but those downturns hit a few years before they faced reelection.
So while the coronavirus pandemic was (and is) an extraordinary event, the economic crisis it produced actually falls somewhat in line with the situations faced by other one-term presidents. It’s true that many voters still had a positive opinion of Trump’s handling of the economy even amid this year’s massive layoffs, but public opinion data also suggested that voters were particularly worried about the pandemic. Furthemore, they generally thought Trump had done a poor job of handling it, making it difficult to untangle the public health crisis from the economic downturn it caused.