What “Third Term Curse?”
Some have argued that there is an historical bias against political parties holding on to the White House for more than two terms. As with most commonly held ideas, that simply isn't true.
One of the arguments that political pundits have been repeating quite a lot in discussing the probable Presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton is the so-called “third term curse.” In essence, this comes down to the idea that American voters are reluctant to give the same political party another turn at the White House after a two term Presidency. At least based on recent experience, there seems to be some merit to that idea. The two terms of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were followed by Jimmy Carter; Clinton’s two terms were followed by Bush; and Bush’s two terms were followed by Obama. Going by these examples, and the one recent counter-example of George H.W. Bush succeeding Ronald Reagan, it would seem logical to believe that the odds are against a Democrat succeeding Barack Obama in 2016. As Jeff Greenfield notes at The Daily Beast, though, the supposed “third term curse” is mostly just a myth:
For much of our political history, the “third term” curse was non-existent. During the Republican ascendancy that began with Lincoln’s election in 1860, the party won six straight elections (although it did take some highly sketchy maneuvering in 1876). Later, the White House passed from McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt to Taft, and then from Harding to Coolidge to Hoover. FDR and Harry Truman combined to keep the Presidency in Democratic hands for twenty consecutive years. (Coincidentally or not, in all of these streaks, the death of a President brought a new occupant to the White House.)
The “reluctance” Harwood points to didn’t really begin until 1960. As he puts it: “The combination of fatigue with the incumbent party and rejuvenation by its opposition helped stymie Richard M. Nixon when he sought to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 and Hubert H. Humphrey when he tried to follow Lyndon B. Johnson eight years later. Al Gore lost in 2000 despite President Clinton’s high approval rating and economic record.” In this last half-century plus, only George H.W. Bush was able to win a third term for his party. (Note: in every case, the nominee was the sitting vice-president — a stark reminder of how much more important that office has become in recent decades.)
As Greenfield goes on to note, each of the recent examples that people who put forward this idea is distinguishable by the unique characteristics at play both during the two preceding Administrations, and at the time of the third election. The Kennedy/Nixon election in 1960, for example, was incredibly close and by 1968 the nation, and most importantly the Democratic coalition was torn apart by the Vietnam War. And even then, Nixon only beat Hubert Humphrey by roughly 500,000 popular votes and probably would have lost the Electoral College vote if George Wallace had not been in the race. In the case of Nixon and Ford, of course, we saw both the first President who was ever forced to resign and the first President who had never actually stood for election prior to taking office and even with those factors, President Ford came within 30 Electoral Votes of winning election. The Bush/Gore election in 2000 was the closest in American history, so it’s difficult to say that it involved any real rejection of the record of the Clinton Administration. Of all the elections following a two-term Presidency since 1960, perhaps only the 2008 election could be said to have been a real rejection of the legacy of the incumbent President. In that case, between resentments over the Iraq War and the growing financial crisis, President Bush’s approval numbers were so low that its unlikely any Republican could have won that year. Other than that election, though, there really isn’t much recent historical evidence for the idea that voters are reluctant to keep the same party in power under the right circumstances.
To some degree, the so-called “third term curse” is similar to an argument that some people were making prior to the 2012 election regarding why it was unlikely that President Obama would be re-elected. As these people correctly pointed out, the United States had not seen three two-term Presidents in succession since Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe served between 1801 and 1825. Given this “fact,” some people argued that it was unlikely that President Obama would be elected to a second term in the wake of the successive two-term Presidencies of Presidents Clinton and Bush. As it turned out, of course, this supposedly immutable law of history, which in retrospect wasn’t really a law to begin with so much as it was an historical accident and the fact that we are dealing with a small sample size, didn’t really have any influence at all over the outcome of the election that year. Similarly, while it is entirely possible that Hillary Clinton, or whomever the Democratic nominee might be if she decides not to run or somehow ends up losing the nomination fight, could lose the General Election in 2016, if it happens it won’t be because of some “third term curse.” It will be because of the unique circumstances of that election.