The curse of the third term.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 9 2008 11:52 AM

The Curse of the Third Term

Does it spell doom for John McCain? Nope.

George H.W. Bush. Click image to expand.
George H.W. Bush

Among the burdens Sen. John McCain carries is this apparently stern lesson of history: Americans don't like to hand the White House to the outgoing president's political party. In the post-FDR era, they have done so only once, in 1988, when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. On three other occasions—1960, 1968, and 2000—a party's attempt to succeed a two-term president with a third-term successor failed. (And also in 1952, Adlai Stevenson lost his bid for a sixth Democratic term.)

Pretty convincing evidence that McCain has a tall mountain to climb, yes?

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No. Look closer, and you'll see how shaky the mountain's foundation is. And this, in turn, illustrates a broader point: Political axioms based on history are often an exercise in assigning powerful meaning to events that don't warrant such significance.

Take another look at the third-term curse. While in 1952 Stevenson lost in a landslide, the other failures involved three of the closest elections in history. Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960 by about 112,000 votes out of 69 million cast, a margin of one-tenth of 1 percent. (In fact, because of an Alabama ballot that split Democratic electors, it's not really clear whether JFK won a popular plurality at all. And there are still die-hard Republicans who believe the election was really decided by sticky-finger election officials in Illinois and Texas.)

In 1968, Nixon was on the other end of a nail-biting victory, beating Hubert Humphrey (who sought a third Democratic term after JFK and Lyndon Johnson) by a little more than 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast, a margin of seven-tenths of 1 percent. And there are still die-hard Democrats who believe that if the election had been held two or three days later, the fast-closing Humphrey would have won.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by about 450,000 votes out of 105 million—a margin of one-half of 1 percent. And there are still legions of Democrats who believe … well, enough said.

Do these razor-thin contests demonstrate the power of the curse, foretelling that third-term efforts are as doomed as trying to boil water at sea level at 98 degrees Celsius? * On the contrary, while it may be true that placing a close second only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades, these near misses suggest that there's nothing predetermined about a party's failure to hold the White House. A few minor twists of fate in each instance, and we'd have a very different lesson: that an incumbent vice president is favored to hold the White House.

Speaking of which, in each of the last four efforts to hold the White House for a third term (1960, 1968, 1988, 2000), the candidate in the hot seat was a sitting vice president. This time, he is not. Whatever John McCain's limitations as Republican nominee, he has one advantage his predecessors lack: He can claim independence from an incumbent president whose job approval ratings are on par with the airline industry. When Vice President George H.W. Bush ran in 1988, he embraced the idea that he embodied a third term for the Reagan era, saying in his speech accepting the nomination that, since a change had to be made, "doesn't it make sense to choose the horse going the same way?" This is not a theme we expect Sen. McCain to hit very hard.           

The point here is not that McCain won't face a stiff head wind in the fall. Bush's record-low job approval ratings and a sharp national drop in identification with the GOP in general will see to that. But the burden of running to replace an incumbent has much more to do with the record of that incumbent, and that party, than it does with any third-term curse.

This is one of several supposed rules kicking around in the dustbin of politics, their expiration dates long since past. At a political rally I attended in 1956, a New York Democratic pol explained how Adlai Stevenson's victory in New York would guarantee national success. This was because not since 1876 and Rutherford Hayes' so-called stolen victory over Samuel Tilden had a Republican won the White House without winning New York. But then Richard Nixon accomplished that feat, followed by Bush the first in 1988, and Bush the second in 2000 and 2004. Another such rule—no Democrat can win the White House without Texas—held firm until Bill Clinton broke it—twice. The nomination is also supposed to go to the presidential candidate leading in fundraising and the polls in the year preceding the election. Except, Howard Dean, meet Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then there's "the taller candidate always wins": Al Gore (6 feet 1 inch) and John Kerry (6 feet 4 inches), say hi to George W. Bush (5 feet 11 inches).

Perhaps the booby prize for sheer determination—or foolhardiness—goes to all the academics who claim to be able to predict a presidential outcome months in advance by plugging in poll data, economic statistics, or (for all I know) their mother's Social Security number. These efforts forecast Al Gores' landslide triumph in 2000, among other fantasies. Here's a great debunking.

Why do we cling to our curses and axioms? Maybe because we can't accept how random, uncertain, and tentative our sense of the electoral future really is. Or maybe because, like kids in the backseat of a car pulling out of the driveway on the way to a vacation, we can't help demanding to know "are we there yet?" Somehow, the rules comfort us along the way. But the real rule is that, no, we're not there yet. And looking to the past to gauge where we're going offers far fewer good signposts than we think.

Correction, June 10, 2008: The story stated originally stated that water would not boil at 98 degrees Celsius. The standard boiling point (100 degrees Celsius) is calculated at sea level; at higher elevations, it is possible to boil water at lower temperatures. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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