This election year, 2008, is one that happens infrequently in American politics. Every four years since 1792, the Americans, by way of the Electoral College, have case votes for President of the United States. Fifty-four times before.
In twenty-one of those fifty-four previous presidential elections, the incumbent president either didn’t seek re-election, failed to win his party’s nomination, or was Constitutionally barred from running. Of those twenty-one elections, eight times the incumbent vice president was nominated by his party for the election.
Thus, what we have in 2008, no incumbent president or vice president running for president, has only happened thirteen times in American history, and only twice since 1900: in 1908 and 1928.
So, let’s look at it a little more closely.
The first Republican Party candidate, John C. Fremont, ran for president in 1856. Since that year, only the Republican and Democratic parties have won the White House. That will be the starting point for this comparison.
Between 1856 and 1900, a span of twelve elections, the incumbent president was not on the ballot seven times – three Democrats and four Republicans: Pierce (D) Buchanan (D), Johnson (R), Grant (R), Hayes (R), Garfield (R), and Cleveland (D). In those seven elections, the Republican party won five times (Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley) to the Democrats two (Buchanan and Cleveland).
In the first dozen elections of the 20th Century, 1904 through 1948, only three elections did not see the incumbent president on the ballot – one Democrat (Wilson) and two Republicans (T. Roosevelt and Coolidge). The Republican party won all three times (Taft, Harding, and Hoover).
In the thirteen elections since 1952, the president did not run for re-election five times: Truman (D), Eisenhower (R), Johnson (D), Reagan (R), and Clinton (D). Truman and Johnson could have run, but chose not to – the other three were Constitutionally limited to two terms. In these five elections, the incumbent vice president was nominated four times (Nixon in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, Bush in 1988, and Gore in 2000). The Republican Party won four of the five elections (Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon in 1968, Bush in 1988, and Bush in 2000), with Kennedy’s 1960 victory the only one for the Democrats.
Thus, the Republican party, in elections where the incumbent president is not running for re-election, is 12-3 — with Kennedy’s slim victory the last time the GOP lost an “open seat” election. In elections where the incumbent vice president is also not running for re-election, the record is 6-2, the last loss in 1884.
Now, every election really is about issues specific to that cycle. Slavery. Reconstruction. The Gold Standard. Trust Busting. Isolationism. Globalism. Cold War. Social Services. Vietnam. Tax Cuts. Star Wars. Recessions. Abortion. Iraq. So it’s not 100% fair to compare 2008 to previous elections.
But based on a simple analysis… things look good for the Republican party.