By 2020, the United States will not have elected a one-term president for 28 years, the longest span in American presidential history.
The cycle since 1952 was 24 years alternating party control of the White House, followed by a one-term Democratic presidency, followed by 12 years with the GOP. Then the 24-year alternating cycle repeated itself. So we were probably due to elect a one-term president in 2016, no matter whether it was Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
If historical patterns hold, deep divisions within the Republican Party are the primary reason the White House might fall into Democratic hands in 2020.
After a 24-year pattern of alternating control of the White House every eight years — we’ve had that since 1992 — the cycle usually breaks: either one party continues to hold the White House (for 12 consecutive years), or the other party’s coalition is too fragile to sustain an eight-year hold on the presidency.
Historical odds were against the Democrats in 2016. It’s difficult for an American political party to hold a White House coalition together for more than eight years. Ideologues within the parties get tired of making the compromises necessary to govern and prefer “standing up for principle,” infighting or sitting on their hands.
Exhibit A: 2016. Bernie Sanders, not even a member of the Democratic Party, made a surprisingly strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, standing on the principles of democratic socialism and moving the eventual nominee to the left. Suspicious that Clinton was too much a part of the political establishment to bring about real change, Sanders supporters in key states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio did not enthusiastically support Clinton, and some did not even vote.
Exhibit B: 2000. After eight years of Democratic control of the White House, Green Democrats (Naderites) abandoned Al Gore in 2000, handing Florida and the election to George W. Bush and the Republicans.
Exhibit C: 1992. After 12 years of Republican control of the White House, Buchananites abandoned George H.W. Bush.
Exhibit D: 1968. After eight years of Democratic control of the White House, some antiwar activists abandoned Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey. These divisions arguably caused the loss of a close presidential election.
Exhibit E: 1960. After eight years of Republican control of the presidency, voters were tired of the grandfatherly but geriatric Eisenhower and his loyal vice president Richard Nixon and were ready for a new, exciting pretty face for the television era, John F. Kennedy.
The political pendulum generally swings from one party to the other after two full presidential terms. Since 1952, we’ve seen four Republican eight-year terms (Eisenhower, 1953-1961; Nixon-Ford, 1969-1977; Reagan, 1981-1989; G.W. Bush, 2001-2009), and three Democratic eight-year terms (Kennedy-Johnson, 1961-1969; Clinton, 1993-2001; and Obama, 2009-2017). We’ve seen a single-term Democratic president, Jimmy Carter; and a single-term Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
Yes, the statistical odds were for the election of a Republican president in 2016. But the odds are even greater that President Trump will eventually be perceived as weak, a bad president with a fragile coalition, and lose re-election in 2020.
Republicans may eventually regret their Faustian bargain of 2016. They might have better advanced a conservative agenda by losing in 2016 and come roaring back, strong enough to push through truly significant changes, with an eight-year term beginning in 2020.
Based on historical patterns, more important than who the Democrats nominated in 2016 was whether Republicans can heal the rifts between the Tea Party and the mainstream GOP, between deficit hawks and tax cutters, between isolationists and interventionists, between immigration supporters and those hostile to immigration, between libertarian purists and corporate welfare/crony capitalists.
What were the conditions that led to exceptions to the pattern of eight years for Republicans, followed by eight years for the Democrats?
In 1976, as a result of the Watergate scandal, inflation shock, and Republican divisions, Democrat Jimmy Carter won one four-year term.
In 1980, economic and hostage crises, Democratic divisions and conservative ascendency conspired to deprive Carter of a second term.
In 1988, a strong economy and weak Democratic nominee worked to Vice President George H.W. Bush’s advantage. This advantage was only temporary, however. Bush’s luck ran out in 1992 when Republican divisions and a weak economy cost him re-election.
In the 20th century, the presidency was strengthened as an institution. Utilizing mass media to magnify their presence in the minds of citizens, presidents served longer and consolidated their powers. In the 19th century, there were 25 US presidents, while in the 20th century, there were just 19 presidents over the span of 100 years.
Compared to the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidents rarely die in office. The president elected every 20 years from 1840 to 1960 died in office. But Ronald Reagan broke that spell, survived an attempted assassination in 1981 and served out his full term. So did George W. Bush 20 years later. So America hasn’t had a president to die in office since 1963, an unprecedented record and tribute to the work of the secret service, better technology to detect weapons, and better medical care.