The Clinton-Bush-Obama Trifecta

Are two-term Presidencies the new normal?

President Obama’s re-election on November 6th marked a unique event in American history. For only the second time in American history, we will have three tw0-term Presidencies in a row. The last time this occurred was from 1801 to 1825 when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe followed each other in succession and marked the triumph of what was then known as the Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists, who would in time be replaced by the relatively short-lived Whigs, who would of course be replaced by the Republicans by the time 1856 rolled around.

It’s really quite an extraordinary event when you think about it. For most of the 19th Century, we were subjected to a series of one-term Presidencies that ended after four years not so much because the incumbent lost the General Election, but because they had insufficient support inside their own party to even guarantee them the nomination for a second term. In the 20th Century, five incumbent Presidents — Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, and Bush — lost their re-election bids, and if you add in Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run in the face of overwhelming intra-party opposition to his Vietnam war policy, it would amount to six. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that Obama’s re-election is the fourth time of the last five Presidential elections in which the incumbent President was re-elected, a 90% 80% rate.

Now, we find ourselves at the beginning of the final four years of what will be a twenty-four year period of two-term Presidencies. Is this the new normal, or just an abberation? Political Science Professor Andrew Polasky argues that we’ve entered a new era in which incumbent President’s have an even stronger advantage at re-election time than they have in the past:

Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama faced no challenge when they decided to seek renomination. Certainly they had their critics within their own party, especially the Democratic incumbents. Both Clinton and Obama faced murmurings of liberal discontent. But it did not suffice to propel a challenger to enter the fray.

On the other side, George H.W. Bush encountered sharp conservative opposition from Pat Buchanan. Although Buchanan never represented a serious threat for he nomination, he did pressure Bush 41 from the right. Bush’s situation paralleled that of Johnson, Ford, and Carter, each of whom did battle with a popular rival in his own party (Eugene McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy).

With no competition for the nomination, a sitting president does not have to engage in one of the familiar exercises of American electoral politics in the modern era — repositioning himself between the primary season and the general election campaign. Mitt Romney’s attempt to redefine himself in the final months of the campaign, to shake the “etch-a-sketch” once he sewed up the nomination, is a necessary move given the sharp difference between the primary and general electorates.

Dedicated Republican voters today skew far to the right of the population as a whole. This gives a boost to idiosyncratic ideologues (libertarian Ron Paul) or fire-breathing social conservatives (Rick Santorum), who stand no chance of winning in a general election. The make-up of the Republican primary electorate, weighted heavily toward (or, more accurately, weighed down by) Tea Party activists, also forces more moderate or malleable candidates to market themselves as, in Romney’s words, “severely conservative.”

Much the same situation applies in the Democratic Party, with the activists and party-linked interests tilted well to the left. In 2008, Democratic aspirants for the presidential nomination elbowed each other aside in their eagerness to call for the quickest end to the war in Iraq or the most comprehensive version of universal health insurance. Fortunately for the Democrats, their primary electorate makes its peace more readily with the need to line up behind a relatively moderate candidate who can win a general election. Nevertheless, the leftward tug can leave a Democratic nominee with some baggage entering the general campaign.

I think Polasky places far too much importance on Buchanan’s run in 1992, to be honest. President Bush 41 was in a precarious position as it was given the state of the economy and the perception that had been created that he was out of touch with what was going on in the country, a perception which may have been unfair in retrospect, that I’m honestly not sure that a quixotic primary challenge by a former Nixon speechwriter really was the thing that doomed his campaign. Nonetheless, he is correct in pointing out that, over the past two decades, no incumbent President has had anything approaching a serious primary challenge. Not only that, but there’s been very little thought in the pre-election buzz that led up to 1996, 2004, or 2012 that there was any chance that the incumbent would be seriously challenged. Yes, it’s true that for the past two years or so Pat Caddell  and Doug Schoen were writing Op-Ed’s in whatever publication was desperate enough to pay them arguing that Hillary should challenge Obama, or that Obama should not  run at all so that Hillary could run, but other than the inane bloviations of hacks like that, no serious person ever suggested mounting a primary challenge to Barack Obama. Just like nobody ever seriously suggested mounting a primary challenge to Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Some of this, I suggest, can be attributed to the fact that both of our major political parties have become far more rigid and ideological than they might have been in the past. The idea of  a Ted Kennedy mounting a primary challenge against his party’s President is seems like an alien concept today. Indeed, even Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge was a waste of time in retrospect, although some might argue that it was a precursor of Ross Perot’s independent bid in the General Election. Nonetheless, if we are truly past the days when incumbent President’s are going to be challenged inside their own party, then two-term Presidencies may end up being the new normal.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    “The last time this occurred was from 1801 to 1825 when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe followed each other in succession”

    Should we be calling this the Era of Bad Feelings?

  2. superdestroyer says:

    As the Democratic Party continue to grow in its dominance, what would cause an incumbent Democratic Party president to lose a re-election bid? Does bad government cause mayors in big cities to lose their jobs? Do the Democrats in California have anything to fear no matter how bad the budget and governance issues are in California?

    What will be the oddity in the future is any incumbent Democrat losing a re-election campaign (president, Senator, House rep, or governor). What a better question for the future is will people pay much attention to election when no incumbent faces a risk of being voted out of office?

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @superdestroyer: Do you ever get tired of the role of Jeremiah? And while we are on the topic, where is the message of redemption here? “What must I do to be saved?”

  4. superdestroyer says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    As I have pointed out many times, there is nothing the Republicans can do to correct the current situaiton. The idea that the Republicans can change and somehow appeal to blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, or affluent coast whites is as naive as those Republicans who refused to believe the polling data. The only thing that the Republicans have to face is whether they will collapse due to “suicide” of trying to be the me too liberal party or collapse due to the chronic demographic changes.

    So of course, it makes sense the incumbents will be re-elected when the U.S. has a dominant political party and an also ran party.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    See, first you must realize you are imperiled and doomed as a white man. Then you have to join superdestroyer’s little band of white supremacists who are going to be generals in the coming race war. They’re kind of like Vikings of yore but instead of longboats they have trailers and their parent’s basement.

  6. Kylopod says:

    I’m not sure it’s as extraordinary as you and Polasky think. I think a lot of it can be explained by how frequently presidents in the past died in office, as compared to today. For example, as Polasky notes, JFK may well have been elected to a second term, had he not been shot. Then there would have been two consecutive two-termers, and for all we know it might have been followed by another one. In total there were four presidential deaths in the 20th century (McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK) in addition to Nixon’s resignation, and when you take these events into account, you can see why it would make the “trifecta” that Polasky speaks about much harder to achieve. The 19th century also saw four presidential deaths, but additionally, in several cases (Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, and Hayes), the parties didn’t even renominate the incumbent.

    I suspect that presidents today are less likely to die in office than previously. Part of it has to do with increased security preventing assassinations, part of it is the improvements in health care, and part of it is that the last three presidents have all been fairly young.

  7. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    To continue on the Kennedy theme… if, for some reason, JFK lost his appeal in his second term, then Nixon might have come back for his two wins that he got historically.

    The invocation of Buchanan seems to be an attempt to make the facts fit the theory, rather than vice versa. Perot was a far more significant factor in 1992 than Buchanan.

    I think the key here is the popularity of the incumbent among his own party. If the rank and file believes that they can keep winning with the guy already in office (which has a tremendous set of advantages), they will resist any attempts to take the nomination away from the incumbent. Only if the incumbent is seen as very weak and unlikely to win will they even consider an insurgent bid.

    And when it happens (see the above examples), it’s never pretty.

    However, I think that the causal relationship is backwards. The insurgent isn’t the cause of the incumbent’s failure, but an effect.

  8. Tony W says:

    fourth time of the last five Presidential elections in which the incumbent President was re-elected, a 90% rate

    Might need to check the math Doug 🙂

  9. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The Clinton-Obama dichotomy really is astonishing when you think about it. And certainly not in a good sense.

    Clinton was presiding over a soaring economy and running against an unfunded corpse of a challenger and he received 49%. Obama is presiding over a disastrous economy and ran against a well funded challenger. Then added to the mix is that Benghazi makes Tehran ’79-’80 look like a coffee klatch and it’s not as if the Clinton admin. did anything wrong in Khobar. Yet Obama received 51%. That augurs extraordinarily ill for the future. If the U.S. was a stock I’d be short selling it.

  10. al-Ameda says:


    Do the Democrats in California have anything to fear no matter how bad the budget and governance issues are in California?

    Fortunately for you I’m here to help you. I live in California and I actually read f***ing newspapers on a daily basis. A few short years ago Democratic Governor Gray Davis was recalled from office when it became front page news that the state was running a $23B deficit. There … you’re welcome.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Then added to the mix is that Benghazi makes Tehran ’79-’80 look like a coffee klatch

    False Equivalence Alert What next? Are you going to tie “Fast and Furious” into this and make Benghazi look like an Iran-Contra arms transaction?

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Is there any cliche you don’t repeat a hundred times?

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Nah, it’s not the new normal. It’s the normal. Most presidents are re-elected. Not to be re-elected is the exception. Looking for consecutive two-term presidents is misleading. Just look at two-term as opposed to single term presidents.

  14. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Then added to the mix is that Benghazi makes Tehran ’79-’80 look like a coffee klatch


    First, you must not be old enough to remember those events,

    Second, the seizure of a US embassy and the holding of American hostages for over a years in the context of a revolution that changes a US ally into an US adversary was a tad more significant than what happened at Benghazi, tragic as it may have been.

    Again: seriously?

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    Given polarisation of the electorate this looks more than probable. In the circumstances it was a miracle Dubya was re-elected in 2004 but he was because Rove was able to mobilise the base to produce what remains the largest vote ever for a Republican president at 62 million votes. Thus around 60 million remains the absolute ceiling for a Republican presidential candidate going forward (Both McCain and Romney received this amount of votes). If Democrats can turn out their structurally larger vote we may be in for a prolonged period of Democratic presidencies. Since the economic situation will be fully recovered by 2016 it augurs well for Hillary if she wants it wouldn’t you say?

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Alas the Tsar’s value system compass doesn’t work very well.

  17. @Brummagem Joe: It really is one of the more stunning things I have read of late.

    In terms of attacks on diplomatic personnel, the attacks on the Kenyan and Tanzania embassies in the late 1990s (hundreds killed in direct assaults on embassies in stable countries) were far more significant than the attacks in Benghazi. (And even those attacks do not rate as more significant than the Iranian hostage crisis).

    It would be nice if people could have at least a modicum of historical perspective and understanding.

  18. Whitfield says:

    I never vote for an incumbent president. Second terms are always a disaster.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It would be nice if people could have at least a modicum of historical perspective and understanding.


  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    If the U.S. was a stock I’d be short selling it.

    If Tsar was a stock it would not be possible to short sell him.

  21. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Brummagem Joe: He watched Beetlejuice too many times, and is hoping that if he repeats his talking points enough times, Zombie Reagan will cross over.

  22. superdestroyer says:


    The recall of Davis was over a decade ago and barely slowed down the power of the Democratic Party in California. Do you really think that Brown could ever be recalled in California.

    I keep wondering how soon the Democrats in California will get around to eliminating initiative and referendum.

  23. Curtis says:

    Well, one thing that has also helped is that we seem to do a better job of protecting the President. We likely would have had another run of eight year presidencies had Kennedy not been assassinated. And another run if FDR had not won so many terms in a row.

    Of course the president running for re-election has a big advantage. He has already successfully navigated a national campaign. He has already gotten enough people to vote for him that he has won the electoral college. He has a successful campaign’s infrastructure.

    And, with our increasingly polarized electorate, he already has a unified party behind him, and doesn’t have to endure a bruising primary battle, so he keeps his powder dry while his opponent emerges broke and battered and having to spend weeks unifying his own party. I think this is probably the biggest reason for an increased advantage in the last 30 years or so. And why this trend will probably continue so long as the parties are as internally coherent as they are right now.

  24. Kylopod says:

    @Curtis: I mentioned the increased security reducing the chances of assassination, but it’s more than that. Garfield could have survived his shot wound if his doctors hadn’t been quacks. 100 years later, Reagan survived a shot wound that would have killed many other people, in part because of the excellent medical attention he received.

    Also, people with serious health problems are unlikely to make it to the presidency today, with the increased media scrutiny which practically demands that every candidate be in good health. I doubt someone with FDR-like conditions could be elected today.