The Democrats’ Mythical Third Term Obstacle
A Commentary By Joel K. Goldstein
Facts, Justice Louis Brandeis taught, are the basis of understanding. Yet facts, even if by definition true, can be misleading when stated imprecisely, without necessary qualifications, or out of context. The misleading power of truth was evident in recent political reporting that invoked history to suggest that Democratic presidential candidates have an uphill climb in winning the White House in 2016 because only once since 1951 has a party won the presidency in three straight elections.
That fact, if true, seems ominous for the Democrats given Barack Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012. And, of course, the fact is true: George H.W. Bush in 1988 is the only incumbent party candidate to win a third term for his party since the 22nd Amendment precluded presidents from being elected more than twice or serving more than 10 years. On the other six occasions since 1951, the in-power party lost in that quest. Yet the fact is much more misleading than helpful because the 1-6 win-loss record obscures particulars of the individual races, which, when inspected, impeach the basic premise and suggest a different dynamic.
It’s true that the Democrats lost in 1952, but that campaign was for a sixth, not third, consecutive party term following Franklin Roosevelt’s four and Harry S. Truman’s one victories. Change is likely to be much more compelling after 20 years than after eight, especially when the personification of change was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a war hero who probably could have had either party’s nomination.
Richard M. Nixon failed to win a Republican third term in 1960, but barely. The popular vote margin was less than 113,000 votes out of nearly 69 million cast, 0.17% — and some have argued that Nixon actually won the popular vote. John F. Kennedy’s 303 to 219 Electoral College victory was more decisive, but it included razor thin, but critical, margins in states like Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico. If about 20,000 voters in Illinois, Missouri, and New Jersey had voted for Nixon instead of JFK, the Republican would have won the election. Had fewer than 10,000 voters in Illinois and Missouri flipped their votes, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives because neither Kennedy nor Nixon would have procured an electoral vote majority. Vote fraud was suspected in Illinois and Texas. Moreover, Nixon ran an abysmal campaign. He was hurt by his decision to debate; his insistence on campaigning in all 50 states, which caused him to waste precious time in Alaska that might have been spent elsewhere; his failure to enlist Eisenhower fully reportedly due to concerns for the president’s health; and his choice of Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate.
Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats failed to win a third term in 1968, but again narrowly. The election clearly was winnable for Humphrey: He lost the popular vote by 512,000 out of 73 million votes cast, or 0.7%, but fell 79 electoral votes shy of the magical 270. Lyndon Johnson hurt Humphrey badly by his efforts to prevent Humphrey from separating from the administration’s disastrous Vietnam policy until late September and later by refusing to make public his knowledge that Nixon’s campaign was encouraging the South Vietnamese government to resist peace efforts with the assurance that it would receive a better deal from Nixon. Humphrey was also hurt by the refusal of Sen. Eugene McCarthy to support him until late in the campaign. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the late trends were in Humphrey’s direction, and many thought he would have prevailed if the election had been a few days later.
Gerald Ford narrowly lost in 1976, by two points in the popular vote and 297-240 in the electoral vote. Ford narrowly lost Ohio and Wisconsin, which together would have given him an Electoral College win. Ford overcame a 30 percentage point post-convention deficit but was hurt by Ronald Reagan’s rather tepid support after their divisive primary battle and by debate gaffes — his denial of Soviet dominance of Poland and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole’s suggestion that the Democrats had caused all of America’s wars in the 20th century.
After the elder Bush held serve in 1988, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and narrowly lost the electoral vote, 271 to 266, after the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote upheld the younger Bush’s 537-vote margin in Florida. The Sunshine State vote was, of course, tainted by a confusing butterfly ballot, which clearly cost Gore votes in some Democratic-leaning communities in Florida. Gore also made the unfortunate choice to limit use of Bill Clinton as a weapon on his behalf.
John McCain’s bid for a third straight Republican term in 2008 ended in a fairly lopsided defeat as George W. Bush’s unpopularity and an economic crisis before the election proved far too much to overcome.
In essence, the six “third term” elections the incumbent party lost since 1951 include one (1952) for a sixth term, one (2000) where it won the popular vote and narrowly lost the electoral vote, and three (1960, 1968, 1976) where it narrowly lost the popular vote and could have won the electoral vote with a shift of just a few votes. In these four elections, the incumbent party was hurt by its campaign behavior. So in the six races for a third term (excluding 1952), the incumbents won one decisively (1988), lost one decisively (2008), and lost four virtual dead heats marred by campaign problems, which generally included the failure to exploit or obtain cooperation from the incumbent president.
Running for a third term surely imposes some disadvantage. Change is an alluring campaign slogan that allows the outs to promise something better without specifics. The incumbent party has a record to defend, and weak points can be hammered without considering whether the outcome of roads advocated by the other party but not taken would have been worse.
The takeaway from campaign history since 1951 is not that an incumbent party faces long odds in winning a third term. It is rather that campaigns matter. It is hard to imagine McCain prevailing in 2008 given unhappiness with the war in Iraq and the economic collapse under George W. Bush. Yet Humphrey almost won despite Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam escalation, and Ford almost won notwithstanding Watergate and his then-unpopular decision to pardon Nixon, the mastermind of the cover-up. George H.W. Bush won, in part, because he ran a much better campaign than did his rival, Michael Dukakis, and he successfully enlisted Reagan to advance his cause. Had Nixon (1960) and Gore (2000) won, as they should have, and/or Humphrey and Ford, as they could have, no one would be claiming that presidential candidates from a party that has won two in a row are disadvantaged.
Each race has its own dynamic and that for 2016 is yet unknown. The Democrats may not succeed in 2016, but seeking a third term is far from a deal-breaker.
Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency, and constitutional law.
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