Presidential Campaign

Is it that hard for a party to hold the White House for three terms?

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Going into 2016, Democrats seem to face a daunting challenge in holding the presidency for a third consecutive term. Indeed, this feat has only been accomplished once since 1950, when George H.W. Bush succeeded the highly popular Ronald Reagan in 1988. However, a closer look at the historical record may give Democrats more reason for hope.

{mosads}Looking back, long runs of single-party dominance were once the norm in American politics. Republicans won four consecutive terms between 1896 and 1908, and three more in the 1920s. The Democrats then had a five-term juggernaut from 1932 to 1948.

Granted, this was a long time ago, and these streaks followed turning-point elections that produced enduring political realignments heavily favoring one party over the other, namely Republicans after 1896 and then Democrats after 1932. In recent decades, the two major parties have been more evenly matched and have more regularly alternated in the White House.

Also, these long runs in office took place before the 22nd Amendment of 1951. Enacted in reaction to President Franklin Roosevelt’s record four wins, this amendment sets an automatic limit of two elections as president for any given individual, thereby guaranteeing second-term lame ducks and significantly changing the dynamics of reelection.

Still, a closer look at more recent popular vote totals indicates that seeking a third presidential term in 2016 not need automatically be regarded as an uphill battle for Democrats.

Since 1950, there have been seven opportunities for a party to hold the presidency for more than two terms: 1952 (D), 1960 (R), 1968 (D), 1976 (R), 1988 (R), 2000 (D) and 2008 (R). As noted, it was solely in 1988 that the incumbent party emerged victorious. But only in two of these seven elections — 1952 and 2008, when Harry Truman and George W. Bush were toxically unpopular incumbents — did the party in power lose by more than 2 percentage points.

In fact, the remaining four elections were extraordinarily close, with the incumbent party’s popular vote deficit averaging a mere 0.68 points. In 1976 (Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford), there was a 2-point gap; in 1968 (Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey) 1 point, in 1960 (John Kennedy vs. Nixon) just 0.2 points and in 2000, the incumbent vice president actually prevailed in the popular vote tally by 0.5 points.

Such stats hardly suggest that seeking a third term has, in itself, been a notable drag on a party’s fortune. Indeed, an average incumbent party deficit of 0.68 points is almost vanishingly small — particularly considering that since 1950, the average popular vote split between the two major-party candidates has been 8.6 points.

Naturally, none of this is predictive of anything. But it does indicate that the simple fact that they’re seeking a third consecutive term in the White House doesn’t presumptively put Democrats at a disadvantage.

One other related statistic, however, may be more worrisome for Democrats. All but one president reelected since 1950 has won a higher proportion of the popular vote in his second election than in his first. Obama alone bequeaths to his potential party successor in 2016 a smaller popular-vote base than the one he first assembled in 2008.

Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute; an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University; and author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.

Tags 2016 2016 presidential election Democratic Party presidential terms third term three terms

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