One year before Americans elect their next president, pundits, strategists and the two 2020 combatants themselves seem convinced the election will again pit President Biden against former President Donald Trump.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s been 67 years since Republican President Dwight Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1956 in the last presidential rerun. More recent elections suggest how much could change in the next 12 months.

Three of the last four presidential elections unfolded differently from the conventional wisdom of one year earlier. Beyond that, the ultimate winner in many past elections was not apparent a year out.

In the last 80 years, the following presidential winners were not regarded as favorites a year beforehand: President Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton was favored twice – and lost both times.

An article in The Washington Post in November 1979 said that, based on the polls, Reagan was likely to lose in 1980 – to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. But Kennedy lost the Democratic nomination to President Carter, who lost in a landslide to Reagan.

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In 1948, Truman was seen as an almost certain loser up to the point he won; one year before they won, Carter and Clinton were barely known.

The recent election that turned out the most differently from a year earlier was in 2008. In October 2007, the two poll leaders were New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans.

The two ultimate nominees, Obama and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, were both subjects of speculation that their once-promising campaigns were collapsing.

But Obama’s breakthrough speech at an Iowa Democratic dinner jump-started his campaign, and he upset both Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses. Despite losing the New Hampshire primary to Clinton a week later, he went on to win the nomination – and election.

Similarly, McCain got his big boost by winning the New Hampshire primary, as he had eight years earlier against ultimate Republican nominee George W. Bush. Giuliani pinned all his hopes on the Florida primary but finished third, folding his campaign a day later.

More recently, the changes in the year that climaxed with the election weren’t as dramatic. But the campaigns unfolded differently from the outlook the preceding November.

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In 2015, most analysts were skeptical Trump would win the GOP nomination, though he had emerged in the preceding six months to poll competitively against Hillary Clinton, the favorite for both the Democratic nomination and the election itself.

Several November 2015 polls showed him ahead of Clinton, but a Marist-McClatchy poll had a big Clinton lead with Trump tied in the GOP race with another neophyte candidate, Dr. Ben Carson.

A year later, Trump edged Clinton by winning narrowly in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, though the former secretary of state held a 3 million national popular vote margin.

Four years ago, polls showed Joe Biden in a close race with liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts amid doubts about both Biden’s (77) and Sanders’ (78) ages.

But Sanders and Warren failed to take advantage of Biden’s poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and he rebounded with second in Nevada’s caucuses and a landslide victory in South Carolina’s primary, leading to Democrats consolidating behind the former vice president.

The disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic prevented normal campaigning. But, from the outset, polls showed that, if nominated, Biden would have a good chance of beating Trump. As he did.

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Every election, of course, is different. But there are some patterns.

The last four presidents – George W. Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden – all faced close reelection races, reflecting the evenly divided country. A loss in Ohio would have cost Bush the 2004 election. Trump lost by under 100,000 votes in three states.

Republican Reagan and Democrat Clinton, by contrast, comfortably won second terms, Reagan routing Democrat Walter Mondale and Clinton beating Republican Bob Dole and independent Ross Perot.

In some ways, the impending 2024 race resembles 1948 when Truman, suffering low job approval levels, faced dissident Democrats on the left (former Vice President Henry Wallace) and the right (South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond) – plus the Republican (New York Gov. Thomas Dewey).

Polling, then in its infancy, showed Dewey ahead but, on Election Day, Truman won.

Biden, too, could face multiple challengers. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has announced an independent candidacy, as has progressive author-activist Cornel West. The bipartisan No Labels group plans to run a moderate alternative.

With such uncertainty, presidential polling is tricky, with signs Kennedy might hurt Trump, and West and No Labels would damage Biden.

But history says the race may look a lot different by next Nov. 5.


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