Former President Donald Trump is seeking a rematch against President Joe Biden in 2024, which would be only the sixth presidential rematch ever and the first since the 1950s.
But the track record of rematches at the statewide level during that time paints a clear picture of the hurdles candidates face when they make comeback attempts. In 25 Senate rematches since 1950, just two ended in different results the second time, according to an analysis from the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And of 44 gubernatorial rematch elections since 1950, just 14 (31%) had different results the second time around, according to an NBC News analysis.
Altogether, that’s 16 victories in 69 rematch tries for the candidates who lost the previous elections. In recent years, they have included some of the most important races and notable candidates in those election years, from the Georgia governor’s race last year to one of the key races that kept the Senate in GOP hands in 2016. And some of the same factors that shaped those races will affect 2024’s, too.
When Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., launched his first Senate campaign in May 2010, he faced an uphill climb. A political newcomer, he had just six months to sway voters against then-Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democratic heavyweight seeking a fourth term.
Six years later, Johnson was in a more comfortable position, seeking his second term — though never too comfortable in battleground Wisconsin. When Feingold launched a comeback bid, Johnson wasn’t fazed by the thought of a rematch.
“I didn’t even really think too much of the rematch,” Johnson told NBC News, adding: “I worked tirelessly. I traveled all over the state.”
“I was not particularly optimistic, even just going into our election [night] event. … Surprisingly, the race was called very early, and I won by a pretty comfortable margin,” he said.
Though each election — whether local, statewide or national — is different, the result of Johnson’s rematch election tracks with data that shows that the winner of a first election on the Senate, gubernatorial or presidential level is overwhelmingly likely to win a subsequent rematch, according to an NBC News analysis.
David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, identifies several trends in down-ballot rematch elections that could be factors in a potential rematch between Trump and Biden.
Of course, the winner of the first election before a rematch often comes from the dominant party in a state or a district.
On the national level, there’s no dominant party — Democrats control the Senate and the White House, but Republicans are in charge of the House, and control of all three has flip-flopped over the years.
But at the state level, there’s evidence that that is still true.
The 2022 midterms featured two gubernatorial rematches — one in Connecticut between Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski and the other in Georgia between Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Democrats have won Connecticut in every presidential election since 1992, and they’ve held control of both chambers in the Legislature since 2011.
In Georgia, Democrats have made inroads at the federal level, but Republicans are still dominant at the state level.
Both Lamont and Kemp also had the power of incumbency, the second key factor Karol pointed to in rematch victories.
“The winner on the first round, by definition, is the incumbent in the rematch. It’s not constant over time and doesn’t create invincibility, but it’s a factor that’s helpful,” he said.
And, as it was for Lamont and Kemp, incumbency can be a factor in winning by bigger margins.
“On average, the incumbent wins by more than they did the first time if they win again,” Karol said.
Don’t count the loser out
The major caveat for next year’s potential rematch, though, is that it’s not just an incumbent versus a presidential hopeful; it’s an incumbent versus a former president.
That may lessen any power Biden has over Trump, who has some of the same characteristics that would help Biden, the incumbent — name ID across the country, experience as president and a record on a broad canvas of issues.
In fact, in the few examples of rematch elections between two former incumbents, the challenger does have better odds of prevailing.
One example on the presidential level: the election of 1892.
That year, former President Grover Cleveland sought to beat President Benjamin Harrison, who had defeated him four years before.
Cleveland won after he criticized the Harrison administration for its fiscal policy.
Another historical example comes from Arkansas, where Gov. Bill Clinton faced Republican Frank D. White in 1980. Clinton, the incumbent, lost to White after his first term as governor. But two years later, with White as the incumbent, the once and future governor Clinton came back, defeating White and retaking the office, setting in motion a string of victories that led to his ascension to the presidency a decade later.
“In ’80, [Clinton] was an incumbent, so that should have helped him. But for Democrats, it was a very bad year. [Jimmy] Carter lost Arkansas to [Ronald] Reagan, and that was not beneficial to Clinton,” Karol said.
“In 1982, there are different stories … but also the national environment for Republicans was worse,” he added.
Clinton and White faced each other again in 1984, for a second rematch, which Clinton won.
While the expansive history of rematch elections offers examples and counterexamples, it’s important to remember that historical trends don’t predict the future.
Whether next year’s presidential election will even be a rematch is still far from certain, and many other factors could complicate a path to victory for Biden or Trump.
For one, Karol cautioned, this political moment is unlike any other. Biden faces low approval ratings and major voter concerns over his age and cognitive ability. Trump faces multiple indictments, including some litigating his conduct as president and others alleging that he mishandled sensitive national security information.
“Is Trump unique? Yeah, Trump is unique. We’ve never had a situation like this. … It’s a historic first,” Karol said.