Election Years and Recessions: The 2020 Outlook

By Diane C. Swonk, Chief Economist, Grant Thornton

Most people assume that incumbents are able to manipulate the economy to avoid a recession in a presidential election year. That is wrong. Recessions or an economy so weak that it might as well have been a recession occurred during more than half of all presidential elections since 1860. (See Chart 1.) That is the first election that coincides with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recession dating.

The 1932 presidential election, which occurred three years into the Great Depression, is included in that tally. Incumbent President Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt for his perceived role in the Depression. The blame went so deep that shanty towns filled with homeless were renamed “Hoovervilles” because of their perceived link to the president.

Chart 1

Election Years and Recessions: The 2020 Outlook

The 1992 presidential election, which occurred nearly a year and a half into what was termed a “jobless recovery,” is also included. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush lost to William J. Clinton, at least in part because the economy was still struggling. Clinton campaigned on the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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