The Power of Incumbency in 2024 – Who actually has it?  

By Daniel F. Cence, Chief Executive Officer

With Massachusetts’ Presidential Primary Day upon us, members of IMG staff weighed in on moments and storylines from past & upcoming elections. This is part of a series of take-aways from the point-of-view of our expert communicators.

Throughout history it has proven to be very difficult to take out an incumbent President of the United States. It has only been done 11 times and Ford really wasn’t an incumbent as he wasn’t elected President (nor Vice President for that matter, but that’s for another blog). 

As Donald J. Trump moves his way through the Republican Primary he is hurtling towards a rematch with President Joe Biden in November. Both have been elected to the office of President and both still remain the heads of each party. Only once before has a President of the US been elected, lost, and elected once again, and that took place over 100 years ago when Grover Cleveland took the office he previously held back from President Benjamin Harrison.  

The power of incumbency has been well documented as it lends itself to huge fundraising, messaging, and branding advantages. This year, however, will prove to be very interesting as we have what feels like two incumbents running for president. 

But what if conventional wisdom is now wrong? What if, in an era of distrust and political disaffection, incumbency has turned into a disadvantage? And if so, can an incumbent somehow channel the hate and disgust each imbues and still win? Can they prove a negative for their own gain?  

The messaging of each will be fascinating to watch as it develops. As someone who has worked in the political messaging space for over 30 years, I do not envy the job ahead for those tasked to do so this cycle.  

We now have, or will soon have, two candidates running against the negatives of each other and not on the positives each brings to the office. Two candidates attempting to attach incumbency status to their opponent and to highlight the dissatisfaction and disgust the images of each other remaining or regaining office would bring.  

There will be no “It’s the Economy stupid” lines. We will conjure no images of the cowboy Ronald Regan riding into town to save us from the Russians and the weak Jimmy Carter. We will be left with “Joe Biden is old and weak” and “Donald Trump is a corrupt dictator” – you decide which is worse for the American People. We’ve been reduced to a race to the bottom, whereby the second lowest candidate in November wins, or better yet, doesn’t lose. 

Negative feelings and emotions are very powerful forces. They can be easily produced but seldom corralled. I worry that each party will unleash hell towards each other, and the American People will be left tattered and bruised. Most likely 49 percent will be left with massive feelings of dissatisfaction and distrust for whoever takes office on January 20th, 2025.  

There is a well-known political adage that states that the race isn’t run until the field is set. Well, the field is set. I believe the die is cast for this race and it will lend itself to a nasty, brutal slugfest.  

When we come out of it, and we will, it will be incumbent upon all who care about this republic (see what I did there) to lead us to a better place of disagreement without disrespect. A place where we can focus on the positives of our leaders and the promise they represent. That’s messaging I can get behind. That’s a place I want to leave for my children and generations to come. For now, buckle up. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride. 

Dan Cence is CEO of Issues Management Group and a veteran political and communications strategist. He was senior strategist for five U.S. House campaigns, three U.S. Senate campaigns, and multiple gubernatorial races, and served as Massachusetts press secretary for the Democratic nominees in three presidential elections: President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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