Friday, July 1, 2016

"Third Terms" Are Rare...But Only By a Hair

I know, I know...her first term, not his third term.

Conventional wisdom holds that it's very difficult for one political party to hold the White House for more than eight years. And strictly by the numbers, this is correct: Since the twenty-year stretch of FDR & Truman and the 1951 ratification of the 22nd Amendment, only once has a political party held on for three presidential terms in a row. So surely this can't bode well for the Hillary Clinton in 2016, right?

Well, not exactly...and anyone leaning on this statistic as a reason to feel good about Donald Trump's chances might want to reconsider.

Though it's rarely discussed, from the turn of the 20th century until 1953 it was actually rare for one party to hold the presidency for less than three terms in a row. Aside from the aforementioned five-term Democratic streak, Republicans McKinley, T. Roosevelt and Taft held the presidency for a total of four terms from 1897-1913. Shortly after that, Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover held it for the same party for three terms from 1921-1933.

Only one gap remains, and it's the only instance of one party serving just two terms in a row during this entire 56-year time frame: Democrat Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921.

Since the end of President Dwight Eisenhower's two terms, there have been six "third term" attempts. Of those, one resulted in a landslide victory for the incumbent party, one resulted in a landslide victory for the challenging party, and the other four were so close that they could have very easily tilted one way or the other.

You might be surprised at how incredibly close each of these four elections really were.

President Nixon 1961-1969 (almost)
In 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon's attempt for a third Republican term resulted in a popular vote loss to John F. Kennedy by only 0.17%...the narrowest margin of the 20th century. Kennedy's 303 electoral votes might seem like a bigger cushion, but even that was possible because of razor thin wins in three crucial states: Illinois by 0.19%, Missouri by 0.52% and New Jersey by 0.8%. Had those three states tilted the other way, Nixon would have won the presidency with 275 electoral votes.

The next "third term" attempt was by Vice President Hubert Humphrey eight years later, which resulted in another very narrow win by the challenging party. But this time, it was Nixon who barely won the popular vote with a margin of just 0.7%, and as with Kennedy, Nixon's electoral college victory also hinged on a few very close states.

As the current Wikipedia entry for this election helpfully explains:
The election on November 5, 1968, proved to be extremely close, and it was not until the following morning that the television news networks were able to call Nixon the winner. The key states proved to be California, Ohio, and Illinois, all of which Nixon won by three percentage points or less. Had Humphrey carried all three of these states, he would have won the election. Had Humphrey carried any two of them, or California alone, George Wallace would have succeeded in his aim of preventing an electoral college majority for any candidate, and the decision would have been given to the House of Representatives, at the time controlled by the Democratic Party.
Gerald Ford and Joe Garagiola watching the 1976 results come in.
Amazingly, President Gerald Ford's 1976 attempt for a third Republican term once again resulted in an astonishingly close defeat that could have easily gone the other way. Although Jimmy Carter's popular vote victory of 50%-48% was slightly cushier than the margins from '68 and '76, his electoral college win only barely survived.

From Wikipedia once again:
The electoral vote was the closest since 1916; Carter carried 23 states with 297 electoral votes, while Ford won 27 states and 240 electoral votes (one elector from Washington state, pledged to Ford, voted for Reagan). Carter's victory came primarily from his near-sweep of the South (he lost only Virginia and Oklahoma) and his narrow victories in large Northern states such as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Ford did well in the West, carrying every state except Hawaii. The most tightly contested state in the election was Oregon, which Ford won by a very narrow margin.
A switch of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio from Carter to Ford would have resulted in Ford winning the election with 270 electoral votes.
But after Carter's victory, this strange and seemingly unlikely pattern of the incumbent party losing by a hair in three consecutive "third term" attempts was finally disrupted. Ronald Reagan defeated Carter after one term in 1980, and when the Republicans tried to win the White House for a third time in a row eight years later...this was the result:

Vice President George H.W. Bush easily defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 by almost eight points in the popular vote and by a whopping 426-111 in the electoral college. This is still the only time since 1952 that any one party has controlled the White House for longer than eight years. However, it wasn't even remotely close.

Oh what might have been...
Republicans were denied a fourth term when Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, and when Vice President Al Gore attempted to carry the Democrats past two terms in 2000...well, I probably needn't remind you what happened. But I will anyway.

Americans as a whole chose to give the Democrats another four years when Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush in the popular vote by over half a million votes. However, he was denied the presidency because the Supreme Court intervened to stop a statewide recount in Florida. Had this recount gone forward, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it would have allowed Gore to win the electoral college 291-246 and extend the previous Democratic streak to 12 years or more. Even after all these years, what went down that year is still tough for many of us to think about.

But here's the good news: After eight highly regrettable Republican years came Democrat Barack Obama's landslide victory over John McCain in 2008, which (believe it or not) was the first election since 1920 in which a "third term" was decisively denied.

The elections of 1960, 1968, 1976 and 2000 all were all so close that they could have easily swung the other way if a few circumstances were different. Endless potential what-ifs are out there, but for instance: If Nixon wasn't so sweaty and pale in the first debate against Kennedy, if the '68 Democratic convention avoided chaos, if Nixon wasn't pardoned by Ford right after Watergate, or if Ralph Nader asked his swing state supporters to vote for Gore...each one of these elections might have turned out differently.

What does all this mean for Clinton vs Trump in 2016? Probably not very much, to be honest.

These particular candidates, the fundamentals of our economy, the popularity of the incumbent president, current demographics and the general mood of the country are all unique to right now. So we really shouldn't look to any of these six examples or to the pattern as a whole as a guide to what we should expect this November.

We'll find out soon enough.


  1. Fun fact: I actually started researching and writing this piece over a year ago, but put it on hold until we got close to the conventions. Enjoy!

    1. Oh yeah, and happy July 4th weekend!

  2. yes, that was the fear, that the electorate would switch parties, as they like to every eight years, why the Republicans thought they'd win this one. Why they wanted Jeb! to run. W beat Gore (sort of). One reason she had an advantage in this situation, weirdly, was that as a woman she's a first, it's hardly returning a woman to the presidency. And as a woman she has an advantage in that the Bush under Cheney did his best to put hacks everywhere, and to underfund everything, and under the Republican majority, some agencies still have interim heads, it's hard to get anyone confirmed, so so that has cost us in efficiency and in the ability to enforce laws on the books, not to mention regulations. So there is a lot of work that needs to be running, to get things that have fallen up and going. And they can think, well, she can have four years to clean it up so it's ready for a man to move in.

    Most of us are glad to or at least don't mind paying taxes, we just would like to see some professionalism, and some wisdom.

    That's the real reason that so many Republicans will vote for her even though her policies are progressive, that they dont have an appetite for humiliating incompetence anymore, and however they may disagree with Obama, they know he ran things professionally. They thought they had him on the ACA roll out and it was rocky, but he pulled it off, can you imagine W under cheney making anything work? Or Trump, who can't even run his own campaign? he hasn't a campaign manager, what does he think, that lazy sleep in watch cable news him will get run anything else professionally. CEO material he is not.

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