The Eight Year Itch?

I have no idea if this is a real quote from former president Bill Clinton, or if it is taken out of context, but it piqued my interest:
“It’s hard for any party to hang on to the White House for 12 years, and it’s a long road. A thousand things could happen.”

Is it really “hard” for a party to hang on to the White House for 12 years? The obvious answer is, “yes,” it is generally unlikely to that one party will control the White House for 3 terms. But, let’s do some math, with admittedly limited evidence.

If we accept that George Washington and John Adams were of the same “party,” then the presidency was held by the same party for the first 12 years (3 terms) of the Republic. Then, Jefferson, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams were co-partisans (of the “other” party relative to Washington and Adams) holding the presidency for 20 years (5 terms). Jackson and Van Buren controlled the presidency for the same party for 12 more years (3 terms).

This ends in 1840, when stuff started to get kind of crazy—at first slowly and then incredibly quickly—as the issue of slavery emerged and stretched the nation to civil war. For 20 years (5 terms), no party held the presidency for more than two terms in a row (and, to be honest, the notion of “party” was remarkably fluid during that time).

Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, and began (for lots of varied reasons) a period of 24 years (6 terms) of one-party control of the presidency. Starting in 1884, we have 12 years of partisan switching, bookended by Grover Cleveland’s (uniquely) non-successive terms in office. We then have 16 years of Republican control of the office under McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft.

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, served two terms, but surrendered the office back to the Republicans in 1920. The Republicans sent Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover to the White House for one term each, a period of 12 years. They were followed by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman for 20 years (4 terms).

Let’s pause for a second. Up through the Second World War, there were 2 elections in which one party had controlled the presidency for 8 consecutive years and was defeated. On the other hand, there were 5 elections in which one party had controlled the presidency for (exactly) 8 consecutive years and retained control. That’s over 70% success in holding on for 12 years plus.[1] So, to be clear, from a very naive standpoint, early history suggests that there might be some “partisan momentum.”

Moving to the modern (i.e., post WWII) period, there have been 6 elections in which one party has controlled the White House for exactly 8 years. The other party has won 5 of those. Maybe Bill has a point. Acknowledging this contrast with the regularity of the earlier period, I’d like to offer two points to chew on.

First, what I term the modern period exactly matches up with the presidencies subject to the Twenty-Second Amendment (limiting the president to two terms in office). This might seem to be a chimera, because only one president served more than two terms (Franklin Roosevelt), but just because few served (or sought three terms) didn’t mean that none of them thought about, or acted as if they might, seek office for a third term.

Second, of those 5 modern elections in which a party had controlled the White House for two terms but then lost to the other party, there are a number of pretty unusual cases.

1. The 1960 election was very close and arguably riddled (in important ways) with fraud.
2. One of these elections was preceded by an eligible incumbent president declining to run (Lyndon Johnson in 1968).
3. Another was fought by an incumbent who was unelected and succeeded an incumbent who resigned in scandal (Gerald Ford was not elected vice-president).
4. A third one led to the phrase “hanging chads” becoming a thing and was arguably ultimately decided in the courts (George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore in 2000).

Thus, we are left with McCain’s loss to Obama in 2008. I’ll leave that as a simple statement, because it’s way too easy to draw unwarranted inferences about future elections from one closely observed presidential election.

In the end, I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect that the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 will have an unavoidably harder time to reach the White House because her or his party has controlled it for the past 8 years. She or he can run against President Obama almost as easily as running as his successor. My view of the past 60+ years of evidence is that modern presidential elections are simply hard to predict. Former president Clinton’s statement implies more regularity than is warranted by either thoughtful inspection (accounting for idiosyncracies) or simple quantitative averaging. That’s not to say his statement is wrong: I truly think it is clear that it is hard for either party to win the presidency. But I just don’t think it becomes much harder after holding it for 8 years than it is to win it when the other party has held it 8 years.
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[1] This is a conservative estimate in some ways, because the implied logic behind the former president’s claim would suggest that winning a fourth or fifth consecutive term would be at least as hard as winning a third one. This calculation sets those possibilities (which occurred frequently during this period) to the side.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]