Historian: Projecting the next presidential winner from the midterm results is a fool's bet
John McCain giving speech at rally in O'Fallon near St. Louis, MO on August 31, 2008. (Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com)
With the midterm elections of 2022 now completed, the projection game around the presidential election of 2024 has begun, with the early prognosis being that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is on the way to the White House. This is due to his massive reelection victory in the third largest state (and the largest one likely to be in play in the Electoral College), but it is folly to put betting money on DeSantis, just as it has been after every midterm election in American history in modern times. Two years is an eternity in politics, and putting bets on a presidential winner has never worked out in the modern history of the presidency, going back a century.

At the end of 1910, Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University, had been elected Governor in New Jersey, but was not considered to be a factor in the presidential election of 1912. The Democratic Party had been in the political wilderness nationally, having only won the presidency twice since the Civil War, with Grover Cleveland’s victories in 1884 and 1892 separated by a defeat. But the Republican Party under William Howard Taft was split between conservatives and progressives, and when former President Theodore Roosevelt chose to challenge his own anointed successor in 1912, it created an unusual opportunity for the Democrats. However, it would take 46 ballots at the Democratic National Convention before Wilson, with less than two years in elected office, was chosen as a true dark horse nominee. In a four-way race, including Socialist Eugene Debs who won 6 percent of the national popular vote (an all-time high for any American party with “socialist” in its name), Wilson was able to win the presidency and 40 states, despite garnering the second-lowest winning share of the popular vote (42 percent) in American history (only Abraham Lincoln, in another four-way race in 1860, took office with a lower portion of the vote).

At the end of 1918, Warren G. Harding was a first-term Republican Senator from Ohio. He had accomplished nothing significant in office, but ended up a true dark horse nominee in 1920, chosen at the Republican National Convention on the 10th ballot, after other candidates with greater reputation and accomplishments were passed over. This was an election shaped by the desire to get away from the aftermath of America’s entry into the first World War in 1917, and demonstrated the goal of restoring isolationism.

At the end of 1926, the American economy was seemingly purring under President Calvin Coolidge, who had succeeded to the presidency upon Harding’s death in August 1923. After winning his own election easily in 1924, it was assumed that Coolidge would run again in 1928. Few anticipated Coolidge’s decision not to run, nor did many imagine that a cabinet member, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, would defeat a more public figure like a governor or US Senator to succeed Coolidge in 1928. But Hoover had made a strong impression, and is still considered one of the most successful and significant cabinet members in American history. With the economy seemingly in great shape, it was assumed that he would have the upper hand in 1932. However, the Great Depression would change the course of history.

At the end of 1930, while the Great Depression was worsening rapidly, there were few observers who would have bet on New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, a paraplegic due to polio, to overcome either Democratic rivals or the incumbent Hoover, who had been a close friend during the Wilson administration (FDR promoted Hoover as a potential Democratic successor to Wilson in 1920). After FDR had been the losing vice presidential nominee alongside Democratic Governor James Cox of Ohio in 1920, no one in their right mind would have imagined that he would have any political future. Well-known columnist Walter Lippmann had described FDR as a pleasant man but not possessing any important qualifications to be president—a gross underestimation in hindsight, but conventional wisdom at the time. But FDR went on to serve an unprecedented three full terms as president, winning election in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944.

At the end of 1942, Senator Harry Truman had gained notice as the head of a committee investigating wasteful military spending occurring during World War II. Henry A. Wallace was FDR’s third term vice president. No one then expected that Roosevelt would seek a fourth term, or that Wallace would antagonize Southern Democrats, who would oppose his renomination for vice president. Yet Truman would become a surprise vice president who assumed the presidency after 82 days in office with the death of FDR on April 12, 1945.

At the end of 1946, after the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress, President Truman’s poll ratings made many think he would not seek election for a full term. And when Thomas E. Dewey became the Republican nominee in 1948, every public opinion poll anointed him as president-elect before the election. Instead, in the upset of the century, Truman went on to a surprise victory, going out to the country in a whistle-stop rail campaign and gaining the nickname “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” for his aggressive attacks on a “Do Nothing Congress.” This triumph occurred despite the fact that Henry A. Wallace ran on the Progressive Party line and Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won four southern states campaigning against Truman’s civil rights initiatives on the States’ Rights Party ticket. Ironically, Truman had replaced Wallace on the 1944 ticket precisely because he had never spoken up on civil rights as Wallace had done.

At the end of 1950, with the nation engaged in the Korean War, speculation was rampant that Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the standard-bearer of conservatism and son of former President William Howard Taft, was the likely Republican nominee in 1952. However, moderate Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. recruited General Dwight D. Eisenhower to challenge Taft. Eisenhower had refused an earlier entreaty to run; a desperate President Truman suggested in 1948 that Ike run as the Democratic nominee, with Truman going back to the second spot on the ticket. In 1952, Eisenhower would defeat Taft for the nomination, and serve two terms in the White House; Taft sadly passed away of a brain tumor six months into Eisenhower’s first term.

At the end of 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts had just won a smashing reelection victory, and many observers thought he would seek the presidency, but the fact that he was a Roman Catholic was perceived by others as an insurmountable problem. An earlier Catholic nominee, Alfred E. Smith in 1928, had been unable to overcome the religious barrier. But JFK would overcome the disadvantage, and go on to victory in a close election result in 1960; his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, was a major factor in keeping the Southern states in the Democratic column.

Lyndon B. Johnson had sought the presidency in 1960, but the reality that a Southerner had not been elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848 was seen as a barrier. His succession to the Presidency after the assassination of Kennedy, however, gave Johnson the upper hand in 1964, and LBJ would go on to the greatest popular vote percentage in American history, 61.1 percent, defeating right wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.

At the end of 1966, with the war in Vietnam beginning to split the nation, very few would have thought that Richard Nixon, the loser in both the presidential election of 1960 and the 1962 California governor’s race, would have an opportunity to make a comeback. Governor George Romney of Michigan was thought to be the Republican frontrunner, and many observers thought that for a former presidential loser to recover from two defeats seemed impossible. But Nixon’s foreign policy expertise was a plus, and he surprised everyone with his resilience, defeating Vice President Hubert Humphrey and third party candidate former Governor George Wallace of Alabama.

After Nixon’s reelection in 1972, few expected the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973. This led to the first use of the 25th Amendment, under which both houses of Congress approved Republican House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to replace Agnew as VP. Ford had never had the ambition to run for national office, but eight months into his time as vice president, Ford would succeed to the presidency after Nixon’s resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

As Ford became president in the last few months of 1974, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was finishing the one term allowed by state law, and had gained some national attention as a “New South” governor. But when he announced for president at the end of 1974, few observers saw him as more than a footnote, as many other Democrats in Congress were perceived as more likely and stronger potential candidates. Carter was labeled as “Jimmy Who?”, but totally surprised the nation with his outstanding campaign strategy and organization. The idea that he would be elected to the White House in 1976 seemed unlikely, but he defeated President Ford in a close election.

At the end of 1978, Ronald Reagan was well known as a former Hollywood movie actor and two-term California governor, but he had failed to stop the nomination of Gerald Ford at the Republican convention in 1976. Speculation was that he was too old to run in 1980, as he was nearing the age of 70, Eisenhower’s age when he left office in 1961. Ike had suggested that no one older than himself should be considered for president. But Reagan overcame skepticism, and rivals including George H. W. Bush. He decided that Bush’s foreign policy expertise was useful, so a team of Reagan and Bush became the winning combination in 1980; with high inflation, a brief recession, the Iran hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan plaguing President Carter, Reagan would go on to a massive victory in the 1980 general election.

At the end of 1986, speculation about Bush being nominated to succeed his boss was met with skepticism, as no vice president had succeeded the president he served in 152 years, since Martin Van Buren followed Andrew Jackson in 1836. Bush had to deal with challengers including Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who had run with Gerald Ford for vice president in 1976, but he overcame opposition, and was elected president by a substantial margin over Michael Dukakis in 1988.

At the end of 1990, and especially after the brief first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the early months of 1991, Bush looked invincible. Two leading Democrats, Al Gore and Mario Cuomo, decided not to run in 1992. A so-called second tier of candidates emerged, including Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who had bored the 1988 Democratic National Convention with a long, uninspiring speech to formally nominate Michael Dukakis. When evidence of his womanizing emerged, it seemed clear that Clinton’s candidacy was in trouble, particularly since a revealed affair had derailed the candidacy of Colorado Senator Gary Hart in 1987. However, Clinton overcame the scandal, and in 1992 had the fortune of a recession that harmed the Bush administration and the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot which took 18.9 percent of the vote. Bush, despite enjoying the highest approval ratings of any president in American history during the Gulf War, ended up losing with a lower percentage of votes (37.5 percent) than any earlier president except William Howard Taft in 1912. For his part, Clinton had the third-lowest vote percentage for any presidential winner (43 percent), better only than Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

At the end of 1998, speculation was that Arizona Senator John McCain would be the Republican favorite, although Texas Governor George W. Bush, son of former President George H. W. Bush, was considered a contender. But to the surprise of many, Bush went on to triumph over McCain, and although outgoing Vice President Al Gore won the national popular vote in 2000, Supreme Court intervention in Florida’s vote count would make Bush the first president to win the election while losing the popular vote since Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

At the end of 2006, future Illinois senator Barack Obama had drawn a lot of attention since his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, but when he announced his presidential candidacy, it was thought that former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton had the upper hand for the nomination in 2008. But after a long, hard fought battle, Obama emerged the nominee. The Great Recession undermined Republican nominee John McCain, and led to Obama’s substantial victory.

At the end of 2014, as Republicans began planning presidential campaigns for 2016, real estate mogul Donald Trump, who had flirted with running before, was seen as unlikely to either announce or to overcome seasoned politicians in his party, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and others. Trump overcame all of his Republican opponents, but was still seen as unlikely to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But for the second time in 16 years, a candidate who lost the national popular vote went on to win the Electoral College, making him the fifth president to do so. This was certainly the biggest surprise since the upset victory of Harry Truman over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948; to many, it was even more startling.

At the end of 2018, as the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign began, former Vice President Joe Biden, who had passed on running in 2016 after the death of his son Beau, decided that he should run to work against the authoritarianism and destructive domestic and foreign policies of Trump. Biden lost the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary, but then won the South Carolina Primary, and was able to overcome a multitude of competitors in other primary contests, including among others, Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Biden would then go on to defeat President Trump by flipping five states that aided Trump’s win—Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona—and become the 46th President of the United States, despite the shocking attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.

So now at the end of 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is getting all the hype, but he will have many challengers in the Republican Party, likely including Donald Trump. And the question of whether Joe Biden, who will turn 82 two weeks after the 2024 election, will run, or who might challenge him within the Democratic Party, is wide open.

So to project who will be president on January 20, 2025 is a pure guessing game, with the likelihood that it could be one of a multitude of alternative candidates, including Joe Biden himself. After the surprising midterm election of 2022, with Biden emphasizing the emerging threat to American democracy and Democrats performing much better than expected of the party in power at the midterm, who can say that he might not have a good chance for a second term?

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.