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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

No Free Passes: States With 2 Major Party Candidates in Every US House Race

Indiana has now placed candidates from both major parties on the ballot in a nation-best 189 consecutive U.S. House races, with New Hampshire, Minnesota, Idaho, and Montana also north of 100 in a row.

Political Crumbs

Gubernatorial Highs and Lows

Two sitting governors currently hold the record for the highest gubernatorial vote ever received in their respective states by a non-incumbent: Republican Matt Mead of Wyoming (65.7 percent in 2010) and outgoing GOPer Dave Heineman of Nebraska (73.4 percent in 2006). Republican Gary Herbert of Utah had not previously won a gubernatorial contest when he notched a state record 64.1 percent for his first victory in 2010, but was an incumbent at the time after ascending to the position in 2009 after the early departure of Jon Huntsman. Meanwhile, two sitting governors hold the record in their states for the lowest mark ever recorded by a winning gubernatorial candidate (incumbent or otherwise): independent-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (36.1 percent in 2010) and Democrat Terry McAuliffe of Virginia (47.8 percent in 2013).


An Idaho Six Pack

Two-term Idaho Republican Governor Butch Otter only polled at 39 percent in a recent PPP survey of the state's 2014 race - just four points ahead of Democratic businessman A.J. Balukoff. Otter's low numbers reflect his own struggles as a candidate (witness his weak primary win against State Senator Russ Fulcher) combined with the opportunity for disgruntled Idahoans to cast their votes for one of four third party and independent candidates, who collectively received the support of 12 percent of likely voters: Libertarian John Bujak, the Constitution Party's Steve Pankey, and independents Jill Humble and Pro-Life (aka Marvin Richardson). The six candidate options in a gubernatorial race sets an all-time record in the Gem State across the 46 elections conducted since statehood. The previous high water mark of five candidates was reached in seven previous cycles: 1902, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1914, 1966, and 2010.


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