When Abraham Lincoln sought his second presidential term in 1864, he was overseeing a bloody war, a bitterly divided nation, and a party that wanted to run him out of the White House.
“He cannot be elected,” moaned Republican newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. “We must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.”
“The age of statesmen is gone,” seethed the New York World. “The age of … buffoons, boors and fanatics has succeeded.”
So when a Republican Party faction chose to stick with the incumbent as its standard-bearer, Lincoln reacted with humility — and a canny political thesis.
“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country,” he wrote in his acceptance letter. “But I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.’ ”
That November, when the northern half of the nation went to the polls, “Lincoln won with 55 percent and change,” presidential historian Harold Holzer told The Post. “So you can say voters bought into the argument.”
Ever since Lincoln’s 1864 victory, incumbents running for re-election in times of national crisis have repeated his warning against “changing horses in mid-stream,” making it a trope of presidential politics.
“In American history, more often than not, wartime elections have resulted in unexpected vote gains for the incumbent president and his party,” said Helmut Norpoth, a political science professor at Stony Brook University.
Norpoth’s analysis of 10 crisis elections from 1864 to 2004 found that wartime conditions gave a measurable advantage to the incumbent’s party in seven of those contests.
The strategy has backfired on occasion. When Herbert Hoover trotted out a “don’t swap horses” message in 1932 as the Great Depression raged, he was heckled with jeering variations like “Don’t change barrels when going over Niagara!” and “Don’t change engineers in the middle of the wreck!”
Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt that November.
But it has been effective enough that Donald Trump, making his own case for re-election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has been wielding martial rhetoric more and more frequently in his barrage of daily briefings on the unfolding calamity.
“I’m in a sense a wartime president, that’s what we’re fighting,” Trump said for the first time on March 18.
Top aides were even more explicit. “We have essentially a wartime president now, and the war is against this coronavirus,” White House economic adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News that day. “And there can’t be any dissension in the ranks.”
Trump’s approval numbers took a sharp uptick as soon as he adopted the theme. The Gallup poll released Tuesday saw his support jump by five points, to 49 percent — with 60 percent in favor of his handling of the ongoing crisis. Other surveys showed even larger surges.
“The coronavirus certainly has the potential to affect voters like a war does in an election year,” Norpoth said of Trump’s new language.
“It is an argument that has worked before,” agreed Holzer.
Eight years after Roosevelt ousted Hoover in 1932, he faced a crisis election of his own when he bucked tradition to run for a third term as World War II loomed. Roosevelt’s victories in 1940 and 1944 point to the strength of the don’t-change-horses argument in wartime.
“Especially in 1944, when Roosevelt ran for his fourth term, he was becoming visibly weaker and less energetic,” Holzer said. “Even though he was in very fragile health, the argument was that we couldn’t simply hand the war effort to Thomas Dewey, who had no experience in leading the military, just months after D-Day.”
In that election, Norpoth’s study found, the effect was so powerful that Roosevelt would likely have gone down in defeat without it.
One reason why a national crisis can boost an incumbent’s chances is the sense of patriotism and shared purpose that arises when the nation is under threat.
In 2001, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, gave George W. Bush the most sustained crisis-related presidential approval boost ever seen. Bush’s approval rating soared to 91 percent in the immediate aftermath of the terror strikes and remained above 60 percent for the next two years.
“The post-9/11 rally feeling for Bush lasted an unusually long time,” Norpoth said. “It helped him win reelection in 2004, despite negative sentiment about the war in Iraq.”
But the “rally ‘round the flag” phenomenon is rarely that intense.
“The rally response is more of a sympathy response, a national reaction of support when our leader is embattled,” Norpoth explained. “It’s not strictly an approval rating, because it’s not in response to anything the president did per se. It’s more a measure of a feeling that ‘we have to stick together.’ ”
Jimmy Carter was the beneficiary of a quintessential “rally ’round the flag” bounce — one he was unable to sustain.
For much of 1979, Carter’s dismal approval ratings hovered around the 30 percent mark. His own Democratic Party was so unhappy with his performance that its brightest star, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, launched a primary bid ahead of the 1980 election.
But when dissident Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and took 52 American hostages, Carter got the benefit of the patriotic surge. His approval zoomed, peaking at 58 percent in January 1980 and pushing Kennedy out of the race.
“But the rally wore off by April and never rose up again,” Norpoth said.
When a military rescue attempt that month ended in deadly failure that killed eight US service members, Carter’s popularity sank back down to its previous basement level — and Ronald Reagan, his Republican opponent, used the debacle as evidence of the incumbent’s weakness.
“That resonated,” Norpoth said. “It was an opportunity for Carter to prove himself, and he failed.”
It’s too soon to tell if Trump’s recent polling bounce represents a prolonged wave of support in the face of a profound national crisis, like Bush’s — or a brief flash of sympathy, like Carter’s.
Patriotism isn’t the only factor at play when the nation is under threat. Equally important are the tenor of the public mood and the ability to seize and hold the electorate’s attention.
The public’s sense of optimism, its expectation of victory or defeat in the challenge at hand, directly affects an incumbent’s fortunes in a crisis election. Both crisis-period incumbents who went down to Election Day defeats in the last century, Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover, were known for their dour, grim rhetoric. The challengers who ousted them — Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt — exuded confidence and cheer, to the tune of theme songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Incumbents who win re-election with a don’t-change-horses message must first stoke Americans’ expectations of victory. Historically, that has come in the form of wins on the battlefield: the seizure of Atlanta for Lincoln, the D-Day invasion for Roosevelt.
“Trump will need to establish a clear metric that shows we are having success against the pandemic, whether that’s less sickness than expected or fewer deaths,” Norpoth said. “That could be the equivalent of winning battles in a war.”
In addition, the media’s relentless focus on Trump and his response to the pandemic — no matter how dismissive or critical its tone — is serving his purposes by fixing the spotlight on him and on the crisis itself.
The more intensely Americans are reminded of an ongoing conflict with another nation via front-page headlines and blanket TV coverage, researchers have shown, the more they tend to support the president’s use of military force — an idea known as “priming” among political scientists. A similar dynamic may be at work now, as overwhelming press attention on coronavirus keeps Trump and his agenda front and center.
“And it certainly takes the spotlight off the Democrats,” Norpoth said. “They are lost in that black hole of the virus.”
In an ordinary election year, former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s near-presumptive nominee would be grabbing plenty of headlines of his own. But the threat of coronavirus has driven him off the field, except for a few flailing attempts to engage with voters via social media.
“Joe Biden is behaving like a 19th century candidate at this moment,” Holzer said.
“When George McClellan ran his race against Lincoln in 1864, McClellan remained absolutely silent and let surrogates make the argument for him,” he explained.
“Now, that was the custom at the time. But today, it might not be an effective way to make the case that you are more capable than the incumbent.”