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De la Isla: Do incumbent presidents win?

MEXICO CITY -- Where were you in 1825? James Monroe was president and, according to radio host and conservative commentator Michael Medved, a re-election pattern began. He says that, although most people believe an incumbent president usually wins re-election, actually 70 percent don't.

It sounds like something inevitable, doesn't it? Actually, it's not. Medved and others who argue this way are misleading.

Medved says history shows people "more often than not say no" to an incumbent who seeks a second term. Medved further asserts that this ought to serve as a warning about President Barack Obama's "odds for a second term" which "are surprisingly long." Here's what's wrong when folks like Medved argue historical inevitability. They use facts to make partly cloudy skies and the price of milk shakes seem like factors in tomorrow's weather forecast. Accurate history is about related events, conditions and circumstances. It is not about soothsaying. The nation's story is especially not about the future when the history is inaccurate or the facts are inaccurately reported.

Medved's headline, "Odds for a Second Term Are Surprisingly Long" wants you to believe something is wrong with you if you think a second term for Obama is likely, no matter how surprisingly bad the Republican candidate might be, because there's an inevitable anti-second term force at work.

He says 26 of 37, or 70 percent, of presidents who have served since 1825 have failed to win two consecutive terms. Of the 42 presidents, before Obama, only 15 won two consecutive elections.

Wow. That can make some Democratic campaign strategists tremble and want to head out the seventh-floor window exit right now.

So let's take a closer look at what Medved is saying.

Forty-two men served as president before Obama. Only 15 of them won two consecutive elections. That means 27 didn't. Why? Five of them simply died during their first term. Seven declined to run -- like Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom succeeded a deceased president, finished the other term and were elected to one, not two, on their own. Five simply did not get their party's nomination. And isn't that the purpose, to qualify an individual, in the first place? Only 10 of the incumbent nominees actually lost their re-election bids. And this is how Medved is misleading. Obama is neither deceased nor a successor of someone else's presidency. Instead he fully won election in his own name in 2008, and he is Las Vegas bankable to get the Democratic Party nomination this September at the convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Historically, 15 presidents have won re-election. Only 10 have lost their election bid and that's the clincher, one that does not mix apples and oranges. Obama's statistical chances are, in fact, 50 percent better for getting re-elected than Medved represents.

(Now who is heading to the seventh floor window?) The public is misled when history is used like a horoscope, facts become tarot cards and time is numerology. It is unintelligent to take history other than for what it is, telling the story about what happened, developing a narrative about the story, and not use history as a probability model to show inevitability, the way some people use the Bible as a predictor of events to come.

If you think about the election process starting in 1825, the Louisiana Purchase had only just created much of the Midwest. The first known Spanish-language newspaper in the now-United States, El Misisipi was established in 1808 in New Orleans. The Florida Territory, later an important swing state, elected its first delegate to Congress, Joseph Marion Hernandez, in 1822.

In fact, half of the eight swing states making up Obama's victory margin did not exist in 1825.

Which just goes to show you it helps to take history into account, but don't totally believe the used-car salesman selling an 1825 model. There's a lot of history there he's not telling you about.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email him at joseisla3@yahoo.com.

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