Is There a “Two-Term Itch?”

Over the weekend MSNBC commentator Steve Kornacki coined the phrase “two-term itch” to describe how Americans since World War II have usually opted to vote out the party of the presidential incumbent after two terms.  He concluded that this “history” might prove as great an obstacle to Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House as any of her erstwhile Republican opponents.  Here is his evidence:


The record is quite impressive.  Only once since 1944, when George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, has the party of a two-term incumbent retained the Presidency in the following election.

On the other hand, we are only talking about a sample of seven elections, and hardly a random sample at that.  Though Mr. Kornacki’s hypothesis seems a reasonable one we might want to test it against the full range of American history.

If there is a “two-term itch,” we should expect to see it throughout the history of Presidential Administrations.  There is no reason to think voters should tire more quickly of Presidents and their parties today than they did in 1816. In that year Republican James Monroe succeeded two-term Republican President James Madison who himself took office after the two terms of Republican Thomas Jefferson.  Voters famously returned Franklin Delano Roosevelt to office four times. So while Mr. Kornacki’s hypothesis has some merit on its face, it is easy to think of counter-examples.  Just how often have American voters succumbed to the two-term itch and how often have they stuck with the horse they know?

Before we start we have to define the precise event we are trying to count.  For instance, the election of 1940 clearly qualifies as a test of the hypothesis, as it came eight years after FDR’s initial victory in 1932.  But what about the election of 1944?  Roosevelt was in the White House for the eight years prior to that election as well.  For analytical purposes I will count as a test of the “two-term itch” hypothesis any two consecutive terms where the same political party held the Presidency.  Using that definition gives us this list of twenty-four cases dating back to Washington’s departure from office in 1790.


Clearly voters since World War II have felt the “itch” much more often than voters in elections from our earlier history.  All told there are thirteen instances where the President’s party lost the office after two consecutive terms in the White House, compared to eleven instances where the President’s party held the Executive Branch, hardly different from fifty-fifty.  That includes counting Vice-President John Adams’s succession to Washington in favor of the itch theory. Woodrow Wilson’s unlikely election in 1912 alone generates two supporting cases. Roosevelt pursued his Bull Moose dream and split the natural Republican majority allowing Wilson to take the White House in 1912.  Eight years later the Republicans were unified and easily defeated Wilson’s successor James Cox.

Of those thirteen instances that meet the “itch” theory, seven of them come from elections after World War II.  Perhaps it is something about postwar American politics and presidential elections that has led to such frequent alternation in parties.

Under what conditions should we expect to find the parties alternating in office more frequently?  The obvious answer is during periods when the balance of power between the parties in the electorate is reasonably close.  The bigger the margin between the parties, the more often the dominant party will hold the Presidency.  Look back at the early years of America when Jefferson’s Republicans held the White House for the first forty years of the nineteenth century.  The contemporary Republican Party held sway over American politics for most of the years between the Civil War and the New Deal.  Since the War, though, the parties have been much more competitive.

We have popular vote totals for all the Presidential elections in the list above starting with John Quincy Adams’s victory in 1824.  If we calculate the average margin of victory in Presidential elections before and after Truman’s victory we get:

Average Margin of Victory in Presidential Elections Listed Above

1824-1944: 13.3%
1948-2012: 6.7%

The margin of victory in postwar elections is just half that in the earlier history of the Republic (and statistically different at any conventional level).  The more frequent alternation of parties we observe since FDR reflects the closer balance of support between Democrats and Republicans.  While this does not support Kornacki’s notion of a “two-term itch” being an historical feature of American politics, it is the “history” facing Hillary Clinton as she heads into 2016.


Everyone Has a Horse in the 2016 Race

Only fifteen percent of Republicans recently polled still undecided for 2016.

Already the Presidential primary season is upon us with another crowded field of contenders for the Republican nomination.  Though we are a year away from the actual primary season, pundits have already weighed in on the prospects for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and the rest.  I was curious to see how this year’s contest compared with the race for the 2012 nomination.

Using the archive of polls at RealClearPolitics for both 2012 and 2016, I charted trends for four groups of voters.  The dark blue line represents the “establishment” candidate, Romney in 2012 and Bush in 2016.  The red line plots support for two “social conservatives,” Rick Santorum in 2012, and Santorum plus Mike Huckabee in 2016.  Preferences for all the other candidates are summarized by the light blue line, while the grey line portrays undecideds.


At this time four years ago, about two-thirds of Republicans had no preferred candidate.  Once the debates began Republicans started choosing their champions.  Romney’s support improved during 2011, but most undecided Republicans were looking elsewhere.  At various times in 2011 Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain each zoomed to the top of the polls only to fall precipitously a few weeks later.  Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul showed more staying power with campaigns that persisted until the end of the calendar. Rick Santorum’s surprise tie with Romney in Iowa, followed by victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses on February 7th, made the social conservative Romney’s last rival.  His victories in the March contests sealed Santorum’s fate.


If we look at how the early polling has gone for 2016, we see one striking change from four years ago.  Most Republicans today express a preference for one of the candidates, and the already diminished ranks of the undecided have fallen sharply since the end of last year. While only a third of Republicans had chosen a candidate at this point in the 2012 campaign, today more than five out of six already have someone they prefer.

Jeb Bush has been the beneficiary of some of those decisions.  He was polling a bit behind where Mitt Romney stood four years ago but has since improved to the high teens, about equal with Romney’s support in late March of 2011.  However, like Romney found after the first debates in 2011, most Republicans now choosing candidates are gravitating toward someone other than Bush.

The religious candidates start out from a much stronger base in 2014-2015 than they did in 2010-2011.  It was only after the 2012 Iowa Caucuses that Santorum’s support rose much above three or four percent.  This time around some ten to twelve percent of the Republicans polled pick Huckabee (mostly) or Santorum.  If we add Ben Carson to these social conservatives their collective level of support rises to about twenty percent of Republicans.

The race in 2010 shows how the array of “others” can quickly collapse into a two- or three-person race after the early contests.  Assuming Bush has the resources to try and follow Romney’s path, we should expect the race to narrow to Bush, a social conservative, and the survivor of the “anybody but Bush” contest.  With so many candidates running essentially even in the early polling, we might expect to see a succession of non-Bush alternatives climb to the mountaintop in the polls before being pushed down the slope by the next contender.

Still with the candidates much better identified in the voters’ minds so far before the debates in August, this “candidate-of-the-week” pattern may not recur in the 2016 race.  The share of undecided voters fell quickly four years ago because Republicans were largely indifferent among the alternatives to Romney.  That led to their switching their support to whomever appeared to be the leading alternative to Romney at the time.   It may prove more difficult to convert a Cruz, Walker or Carson supporter into a voter for Rubio.


Comparing Precipitation in States

The parched earth I see in televised news reports from California seems a universe removed from the lingering snow drifts outside my window near Boston. Here in the Northeast it feels like we have had more than our average share of rain and snowfall over the past decade.  That perception illustrates a larger reality.  Massachusetts has seen about five inches more precipitation on average since 1970 compared to levels dating back to the turn of the twentieth century.


No such good news seems to be in the cards for California.  Its average precipitation level runs about half that of Massachusetts, and unlike the Bay State, statistical tests show no trends or significant differences between older and more recent data.  The current drought appears driven by a succession of abnormally low years starting around 2007 and some historic temperature highs over the past three years. California reached its historical low for rainfall in 2013, a miniscule 7.93 inches.  In 2014, the temperature for California averaged four degrees (Fahrenheit) above the state’s 1901-2000 baseline. Temperatures in California have been running above the historical baseline for many years now.

Inches of precipitation give us the vertical dimension of a state’s total volume of rainfall; the other needed dimensions are measured by its area.  We can estimate the total volume of precipitation that fell on a state each year by multiplying together its inches of precipitation and its total area. Americans use the acre-foot as the standard unit of measure for large volumes of water.  An acre-foot represents the amount of water required to cover an acre-sized flat surface to a depth of one foot.  That works out to 43,560 cubic feet or about 326,000 gallons.

To estimate the total volume of precipitation for an average year in California, I’ll start with NOAA’s “baseline,” California’s average for the years 1901-2000 of 22.9 inches.  I divide that by twelve to convert to feet, then multiply the result by the area of California in acres to get

22.9 inches / (12 inches/foot) (158,648 sq mi)  (640 acres/sq mi) = 2.27 billion acre-feet

of precipitation in an average year.  For much smaller but wetter Massachusetts the comparable figure works out to about a tenth that for California

44.6 inches / (12 inches/foot) (8,262 sq mi)  (640 acres/sq mi) = 236 million acre-feet

Massachusetts is one-twentieth the size of California but sees about twice as much precipitation.  These factors offset to make the total volume for Massachusetts about a tenth that for the Golden State.

This calculation gives us a rough estimate of the “supply” of water available from precipitation within a state. Normalizing this total supply by the size of each state’s population gives us a metric we can use to compare water resources across states, their acre-feet of annual precipitation per capita. If we now divide that volume by the total number of people living in a state, we can compare these values across states and time like this:


At the beginning of the twentieth century Florida had the most abundant precipitation volumes per capita and Massachusetts the smallest.  Massachusetts also had a larger population (2.8 million) than any of the other states in the chart except Texas (3.0 million).  The graph portrays how the rapid growth of the Sunbelt destinations like California, Florida, and Texas reduced the per-capita supply of precipitation.  The other three states show slower declines in the availability of water because of their lower rates of population growth.  Nebraska’s combination of a large surface area and small population gives it ample supplies of water to fulfill its citizens’ needs and those of agriculture.  Massachusetts shows that even a small state with consequently limited water resources can manage if population grows slowly enough.  The state that clearly stands out the most is California.

Per-capita precipitation in the Golden State has now declined to Massachusetts levels, but California’s entire economy and society is geared to high-demand activities from almond groves to swimming pools.  Forty percent of California’s water is devoted to agriculture.  In Massachusetts that figure is less than ten percent, and most of that goes to irrigate cranberry bogs.  On its current path, California faces some stunningly difficult policy choices in the years ahead to adapt its economy to precipitation levels like those seen in Massachusetts.