Economic recessions are rare during presidential election years, but President Clinton ought to be worried anyway.

Business dips have occurred only twice during the 12 postwar presidential election years preceding this one, in 1960 and 1980. Both times, the party in power lost the White House.

True to form, most bank and Wall Street economists do not expect an official recession - defined as at least two straight quarters of shrinkage in gross domestic product - this year either. What they do see is a flat economy, which itself carries high political risks.

"The U.S. economy was not officially in a recession in 1992, but it felt that way to many Americans, which supposedly cost President Bush his bid for reelection," noted Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank Corp.

George Bush's loss - as well as his election in 1988 - was predicted by James W. Coons, chief economist at Huntington National Bank, Columbus, Ohio, using consumer income growth as the yardstick of the economy's health.

Indeed, no party in power since 1948 has been returned to the White House with a bad economy - real disposable personal income growth of less than 3% in the election year.

Conversely, the incumbent party's candidate has only lost once with a good economy - personal income growth of more than 3%. That was Hubert Humphrey, who lost narrowly to Richard Nixon in 1968 in an election turning on the conduct of the Vietnam War.

To be sure, there have been economic close calls. Presidents Eisenhower and Bush managed to win in 1956 and 1988 with income growth of exactly 3%. And Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 with income growth of 2.9%.

For Democrats, this year's outlook is daunting. "Judging by the current state of the economy, President Clinton's reelection prospects are dim," said Mr. Coons.

The consensus view of economists, contained in the January "Blue Chip Economic Forecasts," is for real disposable personal income growth of just 2.4% this year.

The Ohio bank economist interpreted that as a 21% probability that Mr. Clinton would be reelected, based solely on the economy's prospects. The President's chances may actually be much worse, however.

"If the population grows from its third quarter 1995 level at the previous eight-quarter pace, it will rise by about 1% on average this year, meaning per capita income will be up by only about 1.4%," Mr. Coons said.

When this is factored together with the two-year change in the unemployment rate through the third quarter of the election year - Mr. Coons' most accurate historical model for election forecasting - the current White House occupant stands only a 1% chance of staying.

Mr. Coons quickly acknowledged that his prediction should not be taken as gospel. Among other things, the data sample is "extremely small."

And of course, the economic model cannot identify other factors that may influence or determine the outcome, as they did in 1968. Finally, he noted, although no postwar incumbent has won with a flat economy, "there is always a first time."

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