It was a miserable time to make a re-election bid.
When Abraham Lincoln sought his second presidential term in 1864, he was overseeing a bloody war, a bitterly divided nation, and a party that wanted to run him out of the White House.
“He cannot be elected,” moaned Republican newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. “We must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.”
“The age of statesmen is gone,” seethed the New York World. “The age of … buffoons, boors and fanatics has succeeded.”
So when a Republican Party faction chose to stick with the incumbent as its standard-bearer, Lincoln reacted with humility — and a canny political thesis.
“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country,” he wrote in his acceptance letter. “But I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.’ ”
That November, when the northern half of the nation went to the polls, “Lincoln won with 55 percent and change,” presidential historian Harold Holzer told The Post. “So you can say voters bought into the argument.”
Ever since Lincoln’s 1864 victory, incumbents running for re-election in times of national crisis have repeated his warning against “changing horses in mid-stream,” making it a trope of presidential politics.
“In American history, more often than not, wartime elections have resulted in unexpected vote gains for the incumbent president and his party,” said Helmut Norpoth, a political science professor at Stony Brook University.
Norpoth’s analysis of 10 crisis elections from 1864 to 2004 found that wartime conditions gave a measurable advantage to the incumbent’s party in seven of those contests.
The strategy has backfired on occasion. When Herbert Hoover trotted out a “don’t swap horses” message in 1932 as the Great Depression raged, he was heckled with jeering variations like “Don’t change barrels when going over Niagara!” and “Don’t change engineers in the middle of the wreck!”
Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt that November.
But it has been effective enough that Donald Trump, making his own case for re-election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has been wielding martial rhetoric more and more frequently in his barrage of daily briefings on the unfolding calamity.
“I’m in a sense a wartime president, that’s what we’re fighting,” Trump said for the first time on March 18.
Top aides were even more explicit. “We have essentially a wartime president now, and the war is against this coronavirus,” White House economic adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News that day. “And there can’t be any dissension in the ranks.”
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