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
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.