Sabatos Crystal Ball

The Three Predictors of the Presidency

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 13th, 2004


There have been 26 presidential elections over the last hundred years. In exactly half of them (13), the incumbent president or incumbent president’s party has had three or four net electoral “pluses” in its column (using the simple scale outlined above, taking all three election factors into account.

Note that, in the Crystal Ball’s scale here, voters punish incumbents harshly for bad times, while rewarding incumbents for good times less emphatically. This represents the intersection of American history with human nature. Thus, we give two pluses for an excellent economy, but four minuses for a very poor economy, and so forth.) The incumbent party won all 13 of the contests where it had amassed three to four net pluses, with 8 of these 13 elections producing landslide victories.

In addition, there were four elections in the 26 total where the incumbent president or his party had one or two net “pluses”, and the incumbent party won three of these four. (Yes, Al Gore is the only exception, a fact that explains why just about every senior Democratic official sighed with relief when Gore bowed out of the 2004 race on December 15, 2002.) That leaves 9 elections where the incumbent president or his party’s nominee ran with one to four net “minuses”; the incumbent party lost all nine of these contests. In four of these cases, the incumbent party accumulated four net minuses, and in all four cases, the challenger party won in a landslide.

Not every analyst will agree with every judgment call the Crystal Ball has made in this table. For example, the 1991 recession was relatively mild, but perceptions of it, perhaps fanned by news coverage, were far bleaker. Voter perceptions matter more than economic reality in election season, so we have classified it as a serious recession producing a “very poor” economy. Nonetheless, the overall conclusions reached in this analysis are sound. No question: rules are made to be broken, and the 2000 election appears to have broken one. But elections defying gravity have been very, very rare. What are the chances we’ll have two in a row?