The Unemployment Rate And Presidential Elections

The table below shows the U.S. unemployment rate, the incumbent and challenger of each presidential election, and the winner of each election from 1904 to present.

Prior to 1944 (above the bold line) the unemployment rate shown is a yearly average. After 1944 (below the bold line) the unemployment rate shown is from October of the election year (the last unemployment rate before the election).

If the incumbent candidate was not running for re-election, then we assume the party of the previous president was the incumbent.


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Since WW2, no incumbent has won reelection when the unemployment rate was above 7.4% (Reagan in 1984 was the extreme, highlighted in green).  Currently the unemployment rate is 7.8%.  So, if Obama wins, he will accomplish what no other incumbent has in the past 70 years.

At the other extreme, the incumbent lost in 1952 (Stevenson), 1968 (Humphrey) and 2000 (Gore) when the unemployment rate was below 4% (highlighted in red).  If the unemployment rate matters, these incumbents should have won.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt won repeatedly despite the highest unemployment rates in the country’s history (highlighted in green).  He also won in 1944 with the lowest unemployment rate in the country’s history (also highlighted in green).

Bottom Line

If one is trying to use unemployment as the sole factor in determining election outcomes, we do not see a consistent relationship.  If you’re the incumbent, falling unemployment is always preferred to rising employment, but do not confuse this with increased re-election chances.

Source: Bianco Research

For more information on this institutional research, please contact:

Max Konzelman

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