Is Biden's "incumbent advantage" exaggerated?

Nearly the entirety of the Democratic argument for re-nominating Biden is that incumbency is a massive electoral advantage.


  • In the past half-century or so, incumbents have actually lost just as many times as they’ve won. Ford, Carter, Bush Sr. and Trump lost. Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Bush Jr. won. That’s a 4-4 record. So, right off the bat, it’s questionable whether presidential-incumbent advantage even truly exists.

  • Even if such advantage did exist, Biden is not the typical incumbent. At the risk of beating a dead horse, we’ve never had an 81-year old incumbent president before. His approval ratings are also very low for an incumbent. Enthusiasm for him is very low. His running for reelection is not like Clinton in 1996 or Obama in 2012. The things that give a usual incumbent some advantage might not apply to Biden; he’s a special case.

  • Anti-incumbent sentiment seems to be stronger these days - not just in America, but around the world - than in the past. People are fed up and short on patience in a way they weren’t before.

Has a US political party ever not supported an incumbent that wanted to run?

In any case, anyone could have run against Biden in the primary, but no one chose to do so. The Democratic party can’t stop them. Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in the primary. So, I’m not sure what you’re looking for anyone to have done.

It should be an overwhelming advantage to a rational voter. Trump was president from 2016-2020 and Biden has been president from 2021-2024. The country has been objectively better under Biden.

The problem is that voters aren’t rational and facts and logic don’t always matter, and that’s even if you’re able to get that info out to voters. It’s hard to know what matters to any particular voter.

We’ve also never had a 78-year-old major party nominee either. Biden was 77 when he ran in 2020. Trump is the oldest person to try to replace a president. Age isn’t much of an advantage to anyone in this race. That horse is not only beaten, it’s not even a horse, it’s a vaguely horse-shaped rock.

The OP is about whether the incumbency still has significant advantage. Your point isn’t really on topic.

Sure, but then it sounds more like ‘tradition’ or ‘custom’ than about actual incumbency advantage.

OK, than I guess the question is, who is saying Biden has an incumbancy advantage, so that it can be exaggerated? Both candidates have some incumbancy.

The polls don’t seem to show any such advantage.

I think this is a misunderstanding of what is meant by the “incumbent advantage.” Or, at least, it’s not what I mean when I talk about it.

I’m not comparing Biden vs. Trump. I’m comparing Biden vs other Democratic challengers. The question is whether Biden has an advantage over other Democrats because he is actually in office. And whether or not running someone else in the general would be throwing that advantage away.

I definitely credit a huge advantage to Trump having been president before, vs the other Republican challengers. And I credit the lack of desire to run against Biden in the same way.

Though I do not call Trump’s an “incumbent advantage,” because he’s not the incumbent. That term doesn’t mean “been in office before.” It means “currently in office.” Trump is only the incumbent in some deluded MAGA minds.

So only Biden in this election has an incumbent advantage.

Ford is a special case; he was never elected President in the first place (and his pardon of Nixon hurt him politically). And my impression is that all four of these candidates lost in years when the U.S. was not doing very well economically. My understanding is that the “incumbent advantage” is greatest when the country is perceived to be in economically good shape. I’m not sure how that applies to 2024.

As was pointed out upthread, this election is very strange in the sense that it’s two former presidents facing each other, which means both actually have some incumbency to offset the other’s. It’s also worth noting that many voters, for whatever strange reason, actually view Trump’s presidency more fondly than they do Biden’s.

So if more voters have a fond view of Trump’s presidency than Biden’s, that might actually negate any Biden advantage in incumbency.

This is a good point, and one that I wondered about, too.

You are again assuming there is a Democratic Machine deciding who the nominee will be. Biden is the nominee because he beat all challengers. There were no serious challengers because those people didn’t think they’d beat him.

But the argument for Biden is more than “incumbency is a massive advantage.” He has a great resume and track record as President. He’s defeated Trump before. He’s well respected by individuals across the political spectrum. (See, Lindsay Graham). Personally, I think it’s time for him to declare victory and go home, but you’re creating a strawman with this OP.

Yes, this right here is the biggest “incumbent advantage” that Biden in particular has.

If Biden defeated Trump in 2020, why can’t he do so again in 2024?

I can think of two main possible reasons:

  1. People are unhappy with the job he has done as President during his first term. I suspect that most of the people who fall into this category get their news and opinions filtered through the right-wing media (along with a few who don’t think he’s been Progressive enough, but they wouldn’t vote for Trump anyway).
  2. People who are concerned that he has experienced enough age-related decline that he could not do an adequate job in his second term. This is a legitimate concern, and the Democrats should figure out whether it’s one he can successfully address between now and November.

Biden’s other main “advantage,” if you want to call it that, is that there is no obvious alternative who clearly has an equal or better chance of beating Trump (not to mention doing the job of presidenting).

I disagree. Basically the phrase which comes to mind is “changing horses in midstream”; that it is simply too late to get a new nominee–and that any such nominee would face massive challenges and likely fail.

Democrats had 3 years to prepare a new star, such as Kamala, as the heir-apparent. They didn’t.

To use your analogy, it’s like the rider had a long time, standing on the shores of the river, to decide which one of several horses he wanted to use, before entering the stream - and still chose not to change horses.

Which Democrats are you talking about here?

Basically they considered him OK until the debate showed that he was mentally deteriorating–and this was the problem. The articles I have read quote people who have noticed this for a year. If so it was Biden’s inner circle who knew about it, but kept the information to themselves–they didn’t care so long as it meant they were close to the levers of power.

The incumbent advantage is that they can use the power of the office to make things better for Americans.

We are in the early stages of a predicted record Hurricane season. Biden can get out front on this, pushing for extra relief efforts, and visit impacted communities to show that he did it.

Is this going to be a big factor? No.

And Kamala Harris can also go to Texas.

I agree with your first paragraph. D leadership (including Biden himself) had time to prepare for a different candidate in 2024 and for whatever reasons fair or foul did not.

The rest of your implied conclusion, that the current situation guarantees that changing now will necessarily result in a better outcome than not changing now does not follow.

If the Ds are destined to replace Biden by Nov, then yes, better to have started that effort 3+ years ago. But that deal is not on offer. So whether it would have been smarter then to have done so is utterly moot.

Biden wasn’t polling all that well before the debate.

I will put forth this. A central issue in the 2020 campaign was Covid. I think without Covid Trump is probably re-elected. Biden was seen as someone more capable of handling the issue.

Covid is now seen as being over by the electorate. I think Biden’s ties to that sort of government are more akin to a wartime president. People will sacrifice during the crisis time. Once the crisis passes, even if it is handled successfully, people tire of the restrictions and frequently the leader during the crisis time becomes unpopular.

So once Covid passed as a concern, Biden became less popular. Trump can now also capitalize on those who think it was better before Covid, since Biden is the one associated with the Covid times more than Trump.

How could the Democratic party change the nominee when Biden won the primary vote?