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What Are the Odds of a Third Straight Republican Term in the White House?

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Opponents of Republican presidential nominee John McCain have been trying to derail his campaign by tying him to the hugely unpopular George W. Bush. Bush's approval numbers are still trickling downwards—now in the high 20s to low 30s in most national polls. One of the tactics used by the Democrats has been to call a McCain presidency a "third term" of President Bush.

Putting aside how a McCain presidency would govern vis-à-vis Bush, how likely is it that the party of an exiting two-term President could hold onto the power of the White House?

Smart Politics dug back into the history books and examined each of the 11 previous U.S. presidents that had been elected to and served at least two complete terms in office: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

Of the 10 presidents who were affiliated with a political party (George Washington was not), only 3 failed to have coattails for their party's subsequent nominee:

  • Democrat Wilson was succeeded by Republican Warren G. Harding in the 1920 election.
  • Republican Eisenhower was followed by Democrat John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election.
  • Democrat Bill Clinton gave way to Republican George W. Bush in 2000.

The political party of the remaining 7 presidents was able to keep control of the White House—at least for one more term. However, this has only happened two times since 1876.

  • Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson was succeeded by Democrat-Republican James Madison in the 1808 election.
  • Democrat-Republican James Madison was followed by Democrat-Republican James Monroe in the Election of 1816.
  • Democrat-Republican James Monroe was succeeded by Democrat-Republican John Quincy Adams in the Election of 1824 (note: each of the other three principle challengers to Adams were also Democrat-Republicans).
  • Democrat Andrew Jackson was followed by Democrat Martin Van Buren after the 1836 election.
  • Republican Ulysses S. Grant's administration gave way to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes after the 1876 election.
  • Republican Ronald Reagan was succeeded by Republican George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election.

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was also succeeded by a Democrat, Harry S. Truman (elected in 1948), although that doesn't cleanly fit with the above examples as Truman had already served out the the remainder of Roosevelt's presidency after his death in April 1945.

In short, during the past 132 years, an exiting 2-term president's party has succeeded in retaining power in just one (Reagan to Bush) out of four instances. The time when political parties could control the White House in a dynasty-like fashion appears to be a relic of our political history.

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Remains of the Data

Plurality-Winning Governors Elected At Century-Long High Water Mark

The rate of gubernatorial candidates elected without the support of a majority of voters is at its highest level since the 1910s.

Political Crumbs

Seeing Red

Congressman Nick Rahall's failed bid for a 20th term in West Virginia this cycle, combined with a narrow loss by Nick Casey to Alex Mooney in Shelley Moore Capito's open seat, means that West Virginia Democrats will be shut out of the state's U.S. House delegation for the first time in over 90 years. The Republican sweep by two-term incumbent David McKinley in the 1st CD, Mooney in the 2nd, and Evan Jenkins over Rahall in the 3rd marks the first time the GOP has held all seats in the chamber from West Virginia since the Election of 1920. During the 67th Congress (1921-1923) all six seats from the state were controlled by the GOP. Since the Election of 1922, Democrats have won 76 percent of all U.S. House elections in the Mountain State - capturing 172 seats compared to 54 for the GOP.


Home Field Advantage?

When the 114th Congress convenes in a few days, Maine will be represented by one home-grown U.S. Representative: Waterville-born Republican Bruce Poliquin. With the departure of Millinocket-born Mike Michaud, who launched a failed gubernatorial bid, the Pine Tree State was poised to send a House delegation to D.C. without any Maine-born members for the first time since 1821. Three-term U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (born in Minnesota) coasted to reelection as expected, however Poliquin edged Kentucky-born Emily Cain by 5.3 points to keep the streak alive. Since 1876, a total of 208 of the 222 candidates elected to the nation's lower legislative chamber from the state have been born in Maine, or 94 percent.


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