Is History Really Against a ‘Three-Peat’ for the Democrats?

By
Image
Photo: Bob Schutz/AP1972

At the end of a post listing various and sundry ways that Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump in November, the Washington Post’s James Hohmann offers this familiar "reminder":

Don’t forget, history is not on Hillary’s side. Since World War II, only once has a party controlled the White House for three consecutive terms. (George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan by beating Mike Dukakis in 1988.)

You hear this one a lot. Truth is, it’s an example of a conclusion reached via taking a very small sample and ignoring the details. 

The argument excludes the first post–World War II election, in 1948, since that was an election that gave Democrats control of the White House for a fifth consecutive term. There are five elections that meet the definition: 1960, 1968, 1988, 2000, and 2008. As Hohmann noted, the incumbent party won one of these, in 1988. But then the incumbent party also won the popular vote in 2000; I imagine Democrats this year would settle for that precedent, given how incredibly unlikely it is that the Supreme Court will again step in to award the presidency to the popular-vote loser. So we’re now up to 40 percent of the elections defying “history,” even if you don’t count 1948. 

Democrats won in 1960 and Republicans in 1968 in two of the closest presidential elections in history. And neither victory was the product of a straightforward election following some iron law of political science. Republicans lost in 1960 in no small part because JFK attracted a very high percentage of the Catholic vote — a classic onetime event. And you may recall many crazy things happened in 1968, including assassinations, riots, and the turning point of an unpopular war. 

That leaves 2008, where Republicans failed to win a third consecutive term not because history shouted “STOP,” or even because voters were naturally restless after two GOP terms. Two events always viewed as “fundamental” game-changers both occurred: a war dragging on and becoming deeply unpopular, and the economy falling apart. 

So, truth be told, there’s no "normal" two-terms-is-enough pattern we can point to that makes a GOP win — much less a Donald Trump win — this November significantly more likely. But we’ll keep hearing about it. And if Clinton wins, the next time the situation recurs we’ll hear "Since World War II, only twice … "