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January 21, 2014 9:25 AM Assessing the “Third-Term Curse” Myth

By Ed Kilgore

Here at PA on Sunday, Martin Longman took a rather dim view of John Sides’ fundamentals-based effort to dispute Dan Balz’s analysis of presidential electoral vote trends favoring Democrats.

In my weekly column over at TPMCafe, I focused on a different element of Sides’ argument than did Martin: the claim that parties which hold the White House for two terms have a distinct disadvantage in going for a third.

There have been six elections since the enactment of the 22nd Amendment where one party had held the White House the previous two terms (I’ll exclude 1952, because Democrats had controlled the White House for five previous terms, enough to induce party fatigue in any electorate). As Sides notes, the incumbent party won just one of these elections, in 1988. Five losses in six tries sounds pretty convincing as a trend, if not a “curse.” But then there’s 2000, when the incumbent party in fact won the popular vote and the electoral vote was contested. When it comes to Sides’ proposition that the “fundamentals” dictate a national trend more important than battleground state dynamics or EV tabulations, 2000 has to count as an incumbent win. So now it’s four-out-of-six for the bums-get-thrown-out proposition.
That leaves four elections (1960, 1968, 1976 and 2008) as evidence for the “curse.” 1960, 1968 and 1976 were the three closest presidential elections (by popular vote) of the 20th century. All three were inarguably close enough that variable factors could have been and probably were decisive (namely: Kennedy’s religion, which attracted a lot more Catholics than it repelled Protestants, in 1960; the Democratic Party split and the assassination wave in 1968; and Watergate and Nixon’s forced resignation in 1976). Yes, the economy helped Democrats in 1960 and 1976, but in both cases it was tangibly improving by Election Day, and in any event, that doesn’t support the idea that sentiment to end the incumbent party’s control of the White House after two terms was an independent factor affecting the outcome.

If you hear someone repeating a variation on the “third-term curse” hypothesis going into 2016, you’re probably hearing spin.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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