Quick Hit Friday: The Rare “Third Term”

(“Quick Hit Fridays”: Where short posts about dumb topics remain unread.)

When it comes to the presidency, Americans have a curious relationship with change. On the one hand, there are built-in incumbency advantages for sitting presidents. By my count, presidents seeking re-election are 22-9, winning 11 of the last 13 times times and now three in a row. These numbers suggest an American electorate that prefers stability over disruption.

This tendency, however, does not extend to trust in the president’s party, despite this party’s likelihood of continuing much of the president’s policies. When the incumbent doesn’t stand for re-election, his successor as party nominee is what I call the “non-incumbent incumbent.” He — and now she — has searched for what’s often dubbed, sometimes inaccurately, a “third term.” But unlike actual presidents standing for another term, the non-incumbent incumbents fail more often than not — only 10 wins in 23 attempts.

Since Hillary Clinton, like last week’s trend, is again pushing back against historical patterns, let’s take a deeper look at the ten rare successes to see if she can learn from them.

Elections of 1808 and 1816
Incumbent Presidents: Thomas Jefferson (1808), James Madison (1816)
Incumbent Party: Democratic-Republican
Successors: James Madison (1808), James Monroe (1816)
Circumstances: Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were our third, fourth, and fifth presidents. All were Democratic-Republicans. All hailed from Virginia, the first American colony and the most populous American state. Each served as Secretary of State to a Virginian president. With George Washington and a host of cabinet officials, these men were part of the hallowed Virginia Dynasty, which controlled the executive branch for 32 of our Constitution’s first 36 years. (Second president, Massachusetts resident, and PPFA idol John Adams provided the only gap.) Madison became our first “third term” president; by Monroe’s re-election, it was up to six terms. (Only FDR and Truman, who gave us five straight terms from one party, have since come close.) This unusual circumstance offers us no insight into modern presidential politics.

Election of 1824
Incumbent President: James Monroe
Incumbent Party: Democratic-Republican
Successor: John Quincy Adams
Circumstances: By James Monroe’s presidency, the Democratic-Republicans were so nationally popular, and the American people so united behind them, that no other national party competed. In the Election of 1824, all four major candidates called themselves Democratic-Republicans. Cheap win here for the incumbent party.

Election of 1836
Incumbent President: Andrew Jackson
Incumbent Party: Democrat
Successor: Martin Van Buren
Circumstances: Seventh President Jackson followed the precedent set by Washington — and followed by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe — by retiring after two terms. During his divisive presidency, the Democratic-Republicans split into pro-Jackson Democrats, which retained most of the party machinery, and anti-Jackson Whigs, a new party which cobbled together smaller factions united in their hatred of the President. Jackson’s Secretary of State turned VP, Martin Van Buren (the later inspiration for the fearsome Van Buren Boys), ran to succeed him and had Jackson’s endorsement. The Whigs, meanwhile, weren’t yet organized and their electoral votes split between four men. Van Buren won comfortably, though with barely 50 percent of the vote; non-incumbent incumbents were beginning to face a resistant electorate.

Election of 1856
Incumbent President: Franklin Pierce
Incumbent Party: Democrat
Successor: James Buchanan
Circumstances: Pierce is the only case where the sitting president was defeated at the party’s convention. Universally considered among our worst presidents, this ignominious distinction was well earned. Buchanan went on to win the general election with only 45.3 percent of the vote over the Republican and Know Nothing nominees, the high-water mark of his career considering seven states seceded by the end of it.

Election of 1876
Incumbent President: Ulysses S. Grant
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: Rutherford B. Hayes
Circumstances: Democrat Samuel Tilden actually won the popular vote in a disputed result that made Bush v. Gore look like a bipartisan rendition of Kumbaya. The Electoral College finished with its tightest margin ever, 185-184 in favor of Hayes, but only after 20 disputed electoral votes all went to him. Tilden and the Democrats (band name, called it) relented to Hayes only after the Republicans agreed to remove soldiers from the post-Civil War south, ending Reconstruction.

Election of 1880
Incumbent President: Rutherford B. Hayes
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: James Garfield
Circumstances: Hayes promised to be a one-term president, giving us an open contest four years after his controversial victory. However, reminiscent of 1876, when the results of the Electoral College were the closest in history, 1880 gave us the closest popular vote in presidential history, 48.27 to 48.25 percent. Results vary, but the two candidates were probably separated by less than 10,000 votes, and perhaps as few as 1,900. Garfield led this Republican defense of the White House, and he was rewarded with an assassin’s bullet three months after his inauguration.

Election of 1908
Incumbent President: Theodore Roosevelt
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: William Howard Taft
Circumstances: Hugely popular President Roosevelt championed Taft, his friend and Secretary of War, as his successor. That was enough for the American people, especially against two-(and then three-)time loser William Jennings Bryan. Taft won with only 51.57 percent of the vote, more than enough against Bryan’s 43 percent. (Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs peeled off 2.83 percent of the vote, the strongest showing for a Socialist until Barack Hussein Obama exactly one hundred years later.)

Election of 1928
Incumbent President: Calvin Coolidge
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: Herbert Hoover
Circumstances: A booming economy helped the Republicans hold the White House in a landslide with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The history books vindicate the American people’s decision, as Hoover ushered in many minutes of economic stability all the way until his ninth month in office.

Election of 1988
Incumbent President: Ronald Reagan
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: George HW Bush
Circumstances: Vice-President Bush won big on the coattails of popular President Reagan. Still, summer polling had Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis ahead big. Bush ultimately became the fourth and so far final sitting vice-president to win the presidency — the first since Van Buren.

General Thoughts

1) The non-incumbent incumbent’s limited success is boosted by early American history. The first four efforts won by a candidate of the sitting party (1808, 1816, 1824, 1836) took place before one of them lost (1844, when James K. Polk’s Democrats swept into power against the Whig’s Henry Clay). Since the first four, they have only 6 victories in the last 19 attempts. Moreover, dating back almost 90 years, the non-incumbent incumbent has just one win in seven tries (Bush in ’88). Not good for Clinton!

2) Few of these elections give us normal circumstances to help us with 2016.

  • 1808 and 1816 were Virginian forefathers of the revolutionary generation batting away challengers like tennis balls.
  • 1824 was a one-party election.
  • 1836 and 1856 had one united party against multiple major challengers.
  • 1876 and 1880 were tight as tight can be.

It’s worth noting, of course, that every election has quirks that make them an event we can’t perfectly apply to future elections. The same goes for learning from this one. In 50 years, when a non-incumbent incumbent is running for office and Hillary Clinton is an example of someone who did it successfully, Future PPFA will say, “Yeah, but her opponent was Donald Trump.” Fair enough, FPPFA. Fair enough.

3) Nevertheless, that leaves us just three elections where the non-incumbent incumbent has won under normal circumstances (and even 1908 had nearly half of the voting public asking for someone other than the president’s party). Therefore, as I said at the top of this column, I can’t help but get the impression that Americans like change if the neither candidate is already president.

4) So what must Clinton do to fight against history? What did the elections of 1908, 1928, and 1988 have in common? Well, it might be out of her hands. The first and last had all time popular presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; candidates Taft and Bush had the best possible surrogates in their quests to succeed them. In 1928, as noted, the economy economy was in flush, if vulnerable, economic times. Of course the people would stick with the party in charge.

In sum, the election could just end up being a referendum on the President. She needs to pray that Obama’s approval rating stays above water and the economy doesn’t take a turn for the worse. Otherwise Donald Trump is waiting as the “change” candidate, or, as he puts it: “what-the-hell-do-you-have-to-lose?” In American history, much to Hillary Clinton’s chagrin, the electorate more often than not says, “Good point.”

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5 thoughts on “Quick Hit Friday: The Rare “Third Term”

  1. I think 1988 proves to be the best comparison to what is happening now, no? An insider (HW Bush) and a popular sitting president in 88. An insider and a fairly popular president in 2016. We can add Drumpf’s unpopularity points to boost Obama’s decent popularity in terms of the election. Good analysis as always, PPFP.

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    1. Yes, absolutely. A future column is going to look at which previous election this one most resembles. I did the same thing in 2012, deciding on 1984 as the best comparison, and it worked out well. Thanks for the comment!

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