One of the intangible factors that teases around the edges of this year’s presidential contest is whether voter fatigue with Democratic control of the White House could produce a small but crucial tilt toward Donald Trump among undecided voters.
Earlier in the cycle, before Donald Trump’s ascendance convinced most observers we were not dealing with a “normal” election year, there was talk of a “third-term curse,” based on the very small sample size of elections following two-term presidencies after the 22nd Amendment made third terms unconstitutional. Even that limited argument was not totally convincing once you factored in things like Al Gore’s popular-vote plurality in 2000 (Democrats suffered from a third-term “curse” that year, all right, but it was located not in the electorate but in the U.S. Supreme Court). Still, some political scientists make long-term incumbency a negative factor for the party in power in election forecasts, so it is worth exploring the issue at some length.
If you disregard the arbitrary 22nd Amendment cutoff (which is only relevant to one president) and go all the way back to the beginning of the modern party system under Andrew Jackson, there are plenty of times one party held the White House more than two consecutive terms. Democrats held it under Jackson and Martin Van Buren for three terms from 1828 through 1836. Then beginning with Lincoln and continuing through James Garfield (succeeded on his assassination by Chester Arthur), Republicans won the presidency six consecutive times from 1860 through 1880. The GOP then won four straight from 1896 through 1908, and three straight from 1920 through 1932. Then came the big Democratic stretch under FDR and Harry Truman: five terms from 1932 through 1948. Yes, there’s been a relative dearth of three-term partisan wins since then, with Republicans taking three straight from 1980 through 1988 being the only example.
Richard Nixon’s self-destruction in the Watergate scandal was a black swan event — even so, Gerald Ford came within an eyelash of winning in 1976. Without Watergate, Republicans might well have won six straight presidential elections, from 1968 through 1988.
But if you look more closely at weird outlier elections, one-party domination looks more normal even fairly recently.
And then there is the aforementioned 2000 election. If you make the plausible argument that had Al Gore been inaugurated in 2001 he’d have been a favorite for reelection in 2004 (Democrats nearly won that year anyway), Democrats might have easily posted their own six-term streak from 1992 through 2o12 — and still counting.
All in all, you can make just as good a case that parties tend to exert dominance over presidential elections for an extended period of time as you can that there’s some natural brief limitation.
As Andrew Gelman wisely argues after conducting a similar exercise:
We can only learn from history if we know what the history was. It can perhaps be frustrating that political scientists speak in terms of percentages and tendencies rather than deterministic rules. But ultimately, the hedging we do is necessary, giving us a better understanding of the many different factors that affect voting decisions.
So feel free to disregard any claims going down the stretch of this election that some “rule” is going to deliver the White House to anyone in particular.