Post-Two-Term Precedents: Not All That Clear

To the extent that we are going to keep hearing that Democrats are handicapped in 2016 by “fatigue” with being the party controlling the White House since 2008, it’s helpful to have a truly comprehensive look at the precedents, as supplied the other day by Washington University’s John Patty at Mischiefs of Faction:

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. So, to be clear, from a very naive standpoint, early history suggests that there might be some “partisan momentum.”

Keep that in mind because most “proofs” of what Patty calls the “eight year itch” hypothesis begin, conveniently, in 1948. But even after that the “itch” argument is, well, scratchy:

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.

But the five of six are not exactly clear precedents:

1. The 1960 election was very close and arguably riddled (in important ways) with fraud.

Not to mention the fact that 1960 was preceded by two recessions, and that Kennedy (a) benefited from a large net positive in religious voting; and (b) managed, miraculously, to become the preferred candidate of both African-Americans and segregationists.

2. One of these elections was preceded by an eligible incumbent president declining to run (Lyndon Johnson in 1968).

I’d say the assassinations of MLK and RFK and a rapidly escalating war in Vietnam were also unusual factors.

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.

And even then, this wasn’t exactly a “normal” election given the economic collapse of 2008 and the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy.

Sure, you can make the case that the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 will suffer from some prejudice against the party of a two-term president. But it’s not a particularly strong case, and journalists need to stop citing it as though it’s Gospel Truth or a massive data point in favor of a GOP victory.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.