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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

Ed. by Disalvo, Daniel / Stonecash, Jeffrey

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Volume 10, Issue 4


The Miserable Presidential Election of 2012: A First Party-Term Incumbent Survives

James E. Campbell
Published Online: 2013-02-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0003


This article examines the influences on the 2012 presidential election that led to the closely decided re-election of Barack Obama. Partisan parity, ideological polarization, a hyper-competitive campaign, and approval ratings for the incumbent, plus pre-convention preference polls that were evenly split, were strong signs that the 2012 presidential election would be close. The economic record of the Obama presidency, however, favored the election of Republican challenger Mitt Romney. On the other hand, President Obama had the advantages of a first party-term incumbent, and this first party-term advantage was the major reason for President Obama’s reelection. As a first party-term president, fewer voters blamed President Obama for the nation’s economic problems than blamed his predecessor. Of the 12 first party-term incumbent presidents to seek reelection since 1900, 11 won and only one lost. The election of a new presidential party is tantamount to electing a president to an 8-year term.


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About the article

James E. Campbell

James E. Campbell is a UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and author of three books on American elections, including The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote. He has also published more than 80 articles and book chapters on various aspects of American politics. Portions of this analysis also appear in “A First Party-Term Incumbent Survives: The Fundamentals in 2012,” in Larry J. Sabato, ed., Barack Obama and the New America: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).

Corresponding author: James E. Campbell, Department of Political Science, 520 Park Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA

Published Online: 2013-02-09

With apologies to Adrian Monk.

Real GDP growth data are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (2012).

The regression used a counter variable for each quarter beginning in the first quarter of Obama’s second year. The dependent variable was the quarterly growth in real GDP. The counter was not close to being statistically significant (p<0.45) and the adjusted R2 was zero.

This is based on a regression of the two GDP growth rates in Tables 2 and 3 on the incumbent’s two-party presidential vote share. The regression results were as follows: a constant of 39.98, a term GDP coefficient of 3.80 (p<0.01), and a second-quarter reelection year GDP coefficient of 0.57 (p<0.02). The adjusted R2 was 0.87 and the standard error was 2.32.

This is based on a regression of first party-term variable (1 for a Democrat, -1 for a Republican, and 0 if there were no first party-term incumbent) on the Democratic candidate’s share of the two-party popular vote. A control for partisan era was also included (-1 for the Republican era from 1900 to 1928, 1 for the Democratic era from 1932 to 1964, and 0 for the era of partisan parity from 1968 to the present). The regression results were as follows: a constant of 49.00, party era coefficient of 3.54 (p<0.02), and a first party-term coefficient of 5.67 (p<0.01). The adjusted R2 was 0.37 and the standard error was 6.08.

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 10, Issue 4, Pages 20–28, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0003.

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