When has the presidential race been a referendum on the incumbent?

I'm beginning to think the answer to this headline is "never."

Now, fair warning: I don't have any polling data on hand to back up this thought, but bear with me. Since 1945 there have been several elected incumbent presidents to face reelection campaigns: Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972, Carter in 1980, Reagan in 1984, Bush in 1992, Clinton in 1996, W. Bush in 2004, and now Obama in 2012.

In many, if not all of these cases, I'm beginning to think that it wasn't so much a referendum on the incumbent as on the challenger.

I can speak from personal experience in the case of 2004: we heard from many voters that they were wary of changing leaders during tumultuous times (Iraq was still raging, etc) and after the Swift Boat incident, Senator Kerry's credibility on those tough foreign-affairs leadership issues was shot. It wasn't so much about chasing votes against President Bush as it was convincing people of Kerry's strengths, and the latter effort didn't work as well as we needed it to work. But Kerry's high points -- the closely-watched debates -- included one refrain that I think was very effective: Senator Kerry making brief, concise arguments about President Bush's policies, how President Kerry would do differently, and "I'd have done a better job."

In the whole set, there are two races in which the incumbent won: Reagan in 1980 and Clinton in 1992. In both cases, the challenger was a singularly gifted communicator who had the political advantage of a bad economy (read: a whole heck of a lot worse than today).

Among the challengers who lost, they either faced strong presidents with good communication skills, or there simply weren't enough reasons -- bad economy, foreign entanglements -- to change course.

Which represents a big problem for Mitt Romney. His central argument on the economy boils down to "sure Obama helped, but it could have been better if mumble, mumble, mumble." Now, here in the reality-based community we know "mumble mumble mumble" means "the Republicans in Congress hadn't stonewalled every last thing Obama put on the table", but the fact that his argument includes a tacit admission that President Obama's policies have helped stave off a second Great Depression and put the country back on the recovery track is not a strong lead-in to "so vote for me because I'm better!"

To say nothing of the fact that the Romney campaign still hasn't made -- and probably won't make -- any coherent argument on foreign policy, which hands the advantage on the issue to a Democratic president for the first time...ever?

Primary contenders in any given race tend to make the case that "this is the most important election of our time" and "we're going to make this a referendum on the incumbent's record." That makes for good crowd-rallying, but it looks more like it's really a referendum on the challenger. The incumbent, after all, is a known quantity, and if the challenger doesn't make a coherent argument for how he or she can be better, why should voters just hand it to them?

Especially in the case of Willard Mitt Romney, the answer is "they shouldn't." But then again, I'm biased.

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