TTP: A 9 POTUS Checklist for the 2020 Election: Part III, Just The Numbers

The past illuminates the relationship between today and the future. Our present is on a course, maybe a crash-course it sometimes feels, with a specific date in the future. I’m referring to Tuesday, November 3, the date of the 2020 presidential election.

I’ve researched the past of the American presidency using a three-part criteria. Here it is: 1) presidents have won election to a first-term; 2) earned their political party’s renomination for a second-term; and then 3) have lost the re-election bid at the polls and in the electoral count. Starting with the most recent and tracing backwards, nine POTUSes meet the criteria: George H.W. Bush (1992 election); Jimmy Carter (1980); Herbert Hoover (1932); William Howard Taft (1912); Benjamin Harrison (1892); Grover Cleveland (1888); Martin Van Buren (1840); John Quincy Adams (1828); and John Adams (1800). They are the Nine.

I think a creative look at the Nine can throw light—illuminate, not determine—on whether we can expect the Tenth to occur this November.

In a few days I’ll offer a post about the key collective takeaways shared by the Nine.

Before then, however, I’ll guide you strictly through the numbers. You’ll find an interesting item or two in our journey. Remember, this particular post isn’t about issues or dynamics just yet. It’s the numbers. Here we go.

Pick up the cane of Dr. Mortimer in the Hound of the Baskervilles and let’s you, me, and Sherlock Holmes have a closer look.

First, looking across forty-four presidencies, the average rate is approximately one of every five presidencies ending as a completed and terminated one-term POTUS. Update: fifty-eight presidential elections have been held since 1789, producing the Nine among them. That places the rate on the basis of presidential elections as one in ten, roughly.

My thought: the raw rate shows that a president who loses after a full first-term is far from unprecedented, whether viewed as presidencies or presidential elections.

Second, starting in 1789, the American presidency as we’ve known it has existed in four separate centuries, the 18th (a fraction), 19th, 20th, and 21st. This current stretch of years is the longest period of time into a new century without a completed and terminated one-term POTUS.

My thought: hard to pin down, to be sure, but a new century may have a natural flow and rhythm that serves as a backdrop to American life. It is not defining by itself but rather is most compelling when a variety of trends, events, and issues make a broader orbit. Don’t stop here. Keep going with me.

Third, throw out the highest and lowest number of years between the Nine (removing a pair of forty-eight year splits Martin Van Buren to Cleveland and Hoover to Carter; and a four-year split between Cleveland and Harrison) and left over is an average of eighteen years dividing each of the remaining five presidents. Remember, they completed first-terms but failed as the same political party’s nominee to win second-terms (that’s another way of stating my three-part criteria). Toss out the pair of 48s on the high side and the one 4 on the low side and an average of 18 years separates the remaining five POTUSes of the Nine.

My thought: here is a significant point. We are currently tied for third as having the longest-running period without a POTUS who meets my criteria as one of the Nine. The other gap tied with us is the 28 years from 1800 to 1828 (J Adams to JQ Adams). Now, let’s get those two 48-year periods back on the screen. I believe it is very significant to look more deeply into the two 48-year periods and lay them alongside the other 28-year gap. Arguably, some of the greatest strife in the American experience occurred in these two 48-year periods (Civil War, end of slavery, Reconstruction, and national expansion on one hand, with World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Cold War, Great Depression and economic troughing on the other). The absence of the Nine from these periods reflects the direction of civic and political pressures toward major events and dramatic changes that exploded from inward and outward sources. The American presidency absorbed those pressures so well that it took 48 years—twice—before one of the Nine suffered defeat. JQ Adams’s loss in 1828 signaled a different sort of pressure that was internally, inwardly focused and driven. The pressure which built up was a pressure that the sitting president could not manage and defuse. You and I will return to this in a minute from another direction.

Fourth, five of the Nine have occurred after a presidency consisting of four or more years.

My thought: success has a shelf life, a tolerance level. In American political culture we might sense that the public has a limited period of acceptance of those policies, behaviors, symbols, and gestures that had first gained a POTUS and the POTUS’s political party control of the White House. When enough time passes, the chances rise quickly that a loss in a presidential election is in the offing. People get tired, bored, restless, whatever. Put differently, a tendency may exist for a POTUS and POTUS’s political to either over-reach or simply run out of new and interesting ideas to sustain public support.

Fifth, four of the Nine have occurred after a presidency of two terms. And then there’s this—three of these four happened within the first fifty years of the start of the presidency under the American constitution. Only one has existed between 1840 and today. One.

My thought: George HW Bush is that one post-1840 POTUS to have served, and lost re-election, after an elected two-term presidency of the same political party. The intriguing fact about POTUS 41 is that his presidency is the only elected one-termer/then-defeated since 1980. This fact is especially interesting when considered in the context of massive, disruptive changes in communication technology over the past fifty years. If anything, you might assume that with all the compression of time and space in communication technology—along with assumptions that people can’t pay attention for more thirty seconds—we’d be seeing one-termers left and right. But as you know, that’s not been the case. Only POTUS 41.

Sixth, and this is stands out and stands part from all the rest, only one of the Nine has followed the consecutive completion of three two-term presidencies (JQ Adams following the Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe Administrations) AND, get ready—only one other time in the American past have we had a consecutive completion of three two-term presidencies: which is precisely right now (Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations). You read it correctly, right by golly now. We’re waiting to see if we make history in 2020 in the rhetorical and literal sense, if POTUS 45 is the first to be the fourth in a string of consecutive two-term presidencies. Just think about that the next time you hear about the inherent instability, chaos, and zaniness of American political culture and life.

My thought: we come again to the late 1820s (see the Third Point above). Let’s look at the common features of this one other consecutive string of three two-term presidencies. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were from the same state, the same political party, knew each other quite well, and held many and perhaps most of the same political ideas, assumptions, and biases. Also, each owned enslaved Blacks. I mentioned pressure and pressurizing above in the Third Point and the over-reach, shelf-life, and tolerance level of American political culture in the Fourth Point. JQ Adams’s one-time victory likely was his solo chance to siphon off the pressure into his own support. He failed to do that (wasn’t mentally or attitudinally disposed to do it) and, as it turned out, Andrew Jackson (whom I regard as cousin-like kin to Donald Trump in leadership style) proved the happy and wild-eyed beneficiary. We will see if, amazingly, the Andrew Jackson-ish Donald Trump will in fact prove to be also the recurrence of JQ Adams as the victim following the only other string of three two-term presidencies. Should it be the case, the irony would be strange and the strange would be ironic. Underline this point with a heavy black marker as the summer ends, fall begins, and the prospects of both Covid-19 and Trump’s opponent hover in the balance.

Seventh, five of the Nine have occurred during some form of economic decline, though only three of the drops were major, sweeping, and nationally-defined.

My thought: the presence of economic problems wasn’t a shock to me when looking at the Nine. What was a bit of a shock, though, was the limited appearance of the economy’s role. Its impact is big, no question about it, but as a group the Nine had other stories to tell. Perhaps the key point here is that the depth and intensity of the economic downturn will drive the thing. If the economy is truly bad and you’re POTUS renominated for a second term by your political party, you’re done, you’re out, you’re toast.

Eighth, none of the Nine were in a currently declared war or armed conflict with a national emphasis, definition, or scale. It is true that two had either a backdrop of warfare or recent warfare (Bush and Carter) and a third had a very recent undeclared naval war (Adams).

My thought: the overseas war doesn’t wear well enough to prevent defeat. Again, looking at POTUS 41 will reveal a startling fact—a public approval rating that was sky-high after Gulf War I and an effective record in responding to war-like uncertainties with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union did zero in keeping him off the Nine. Within a time, he was hugely popular. Within a setting, he sorted the chaos. Neither mattered. He’s among the Nine.

Ninth, the prior mid-term election results of the Nine skewed sharply toward defeat of the POTUS’s political party. When congressional mid-term elections are sorted into House and Senate outcomes (nine whole-House elections and nine partial-Senate elections), fifteen of eighteen mid-term election events produced a loss of seats for each POTUS in the Nine.

My thought: I always tell people that this point should be viewed as a door or portal. It doesn’t determine or fix the outcome two years later in the re-election bid of the Nine. It absolutely does open a door, uncover a portal, where the problems may begin to appear over the next twenty-four months. Simply watch to see if they appear or not, if they march through or not. In the moment of real-time between now and the potential presidential re-election, the prior mid-term election seems like ancient history. There will be plenty of time later on to wipe the dust and marvel at its prophecies.

Coming soon—my refreshed look at trends and dynamics from the Nine.

One last thing. I’m not doing this as Dem or Repub, as viewer of Fox or MSNBC. I’m giving you the research and sharing what pops out at me. Thanks for indulging.

All the best, Dan