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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

Ed. by Disalvo, Daniel / Stonecash, Jeffrey

4 Issues per year

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Volume 10, Issue 4


The Presidential Election of 2012 by the Numbers and in Historical Perspective

Verlan Lewis / James W. Ceaser
Published Online: 2013-02-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0001


This essay explores the scope of President Obama’s re-election victory in 2012 by comparing it to previous presidential elections in American history. Three conclusions are drawn. First, Obama’s margin of victory in 2012 is modest by historical standards, though Obama did make history by becoming the first re-elected President to lose both Electoral College votes and popular vote share between his first and second election. Next, despite some claims that challenger Mitt Romney squandered an easy opportunity to win, the historical record of incumbents seeking a second term suggests that the advantage always lay with President Obama. Finally, the 2012 election marked a further step in a changing pattern of presidential elections in which national margins of victory tend to be much smaller, state landslides are more numerous, and swings from one party to another between consecutive presidential elections are minimized.

About the article

Verlan Lewis

Verlan Lewis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser is Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of, among others, Nature and History in American Political Development (Harvard University Press, 2006), and After Hope and Change: The 2012 Election and American Politics, with Andrew Busch and Jack Pitney (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield).

Corresponding author: Verlan Lewis, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Published Online: 2013-02-09

“Transcript of President Bush’s News Conference,” New York Times, 4 Nov 2004.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., “…He Didn’t Get It,” The Washington Post, 5 Nov 2004.

Senator Bernie Sanders wrote: “President Obama and the Democrats won a decisive victory on Election Day. The people have spoken and the Democratic Leadership must make it very clear that they intend to…hold the line.” “The People Have Spoken,” Daily Kos, 29 Nov 2012.

Historians of American politics often point to 1896 as the beginning of modern presidential elections.

Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1908, p. 54.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 72, 1788.

Prior to the advent of mass popular voting in the 1830s, popular vote data is sketchy and not as comparable with later elections. Still, we know that all five re-elected Presidents in this era – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson – increased their number of electoral votes. It is likely that Madison and Jackson both lost popular vote-share even though both probably increased their number of popular votes. In Jackson’s case, a third-party candidate run by the Anti-Masonic Party split the vote in 1832, which means that Jackson probably increased his margin of victory despite losing vote-share.

Wilson lost the House in his 1916 re-election campaign, while all the others lost chambers in the prior mid-term election.

Interestingly, no vice president, after finishing his president’s term, has run for more than one election. Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and LBJ all won an election in their own right as incumbents, but none went on to stand for a second election. LBJ was the closest to pursuing this option in 1968, but withdrew in the face of stiff resistance from his primary challengers.

One exception is the District of Columbia, which has voted in favor of the Democratic Party’s candidate in every election.

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 10, Issue 4, Pages 29–35, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0001.

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