Multiple terms, incumbency, and presidential politics
I was doing some thinking about an idea I’ve occasionally referenced in this blog — namely, the concept that history favors the Democrats, perhaps strongly so, in next year’s presidential election. The main justification usually given to back up this assertion is that the American people almost always decide to give the other party a shot at the executive branch after its opponent has enjoyed multiple terms in office. But is this idea valid?
Well, a little research revealed that one has to put this idea into context.
During the post World War II era (which I’ll define here as elections occurring after Harry Truman left office), there have been seven presidential elections (1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988, 1992 and 2000) that gave voters the opportunity to keep one of the two parties in power for more than two terms. On only one of those seven occasions, in 1988, did the American people opt for a third term with the same party.
But if we look back further into history, we get a different picture. The modern two party era in U.S. politics can be defined as that period of time since the two, current ruling parties came to dominate the American polity — in other words, since the Civil War. And during this longer sampling of history, seventeen elections have been held when voters had the chance to allow one party to keep the White House for more than two terms: the seven contests mentioned above since Harry’s Truman’s day, in addition to the elections of 1876, 1880, 1884, 1904, 1908, 1920, 1928, 1940, 1944, and 1948.
Using the larger sample reveals that, in the modern era taken as whole, American voters have usually opted to retain the same party in the White House for three or more terms when given the opportunity to do so. Indeed, only twice in the long years between the Civil War and the departure of Truman — the elections of 1884 and 1920 — did Americans decide to “throw the bums out” after multiple presidential terms by one party. That contrasts with the eight elections during this period (1876, 1880, 1904, 1908, 1928, 1940, 1944, 1948) when voters decided to stick with the incumbent party.
So, in modern presidential politics, Americans have given the nod to the party already in the White House for mutiple terms in some 53% (9 out of 17) of the elections they’ve had the chance to do so, but in only 14% (1 out of 7) of the contests held since FDR’s wartime successor left office.
It would appear that Americans historically have not found it problematic to stick with one political party for longish stretches of time covering three or more presidential terms; but that they have also grown more ornery in their political inclinations in recent decades. Drawing conclusions about what historical trends predict for next year’s election depends on whether recent history outweighs merely modern history.