Hillary Clinton and the Two-Term Jinx

by Stuart Rothenberg November 12, 2015 · 9:55 AM EST

I hear it all the time: Voters want change after one party has held the White House for eight years, and that’s why only once over the past six decades has a party held the presidency for three consecutive terms. Tough luck, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The observation has merit, but it isn’t nearly as significant a factor as it may initially seem.

There have only been four instances since the modern campaign era began in the 1950s when a sitting president has served two full terms and been prohibited from seeking re-election: Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bill Clinton in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2008. (The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits a president from seeking a third term, was ratified on February 27, 1951.)

In one of those four instances, in 1988, the nominee of the president’s party retained the White House. Ronald Reagan’s approval was in the 50s when that election occurred, and the U.S. economy was relatively strong. Even more important, Vice President George Bush ran a strong campaign against challenger Michael Dukakis, whom Republicans successfully painted as a liberal. Dukakis’s performance in the first televised debate also did not help his cause.

In 2000, Republicans unquestionably ran on the “fatigue” of the electorate from Bill Clinton’s presidency, and George W. Bush often indirectly referred to the controversies of the Clinton years and the divisions they created in the country. Vice President Al Gore never fully embraced the outgoing president as one might have expected given Clinton’s solid job approval numbers.

Still, although the jinx presumably held and Bush was elected, Gore did win the popular vote and almost certainly would have carried Florida (and won the presidency) if the state’s ballot had not confused some voters, who ended up casting their ballots for Pat Buchanan instead of the Democrat.

In a third case, 1960, Republican Richard M. Nixon lost the presidential election not because of a two-term jinx, but because of the campaign. Nixon’s appearance during the first debate was crucial, and John F. Kennedy’s personal appeal was considerable. And like 2000, there were questions about the outcome of a tight race that might have been decided by voter fraud in two large, crucial states, Illinois and Texas.

In the fourth and final case, in 2008,  outgoing incumbent George W. Bush’s Gallup job approval was in the upper 20s and low 30s as November approached, and he proved to be an albatross around the neck of GOP presidential nominee John McCain, even though the Arizona senator had significant differences over the years with Bush. Democratic nominee Barack Obama ran on a message of change and promised a McCain victory would bring a “third Bush term.” Not surprisingly, Obama won easily.

Each of the four circumstances is different, and that’s the point.

Relying on a two-term jinx explanation grossly exaggerates the importance of a single variable — control of the White House at the time of the election — during an electoral environment that involves an almost uncountable number of factors.

Focusing on the jinx misses everything else that happens during election season, from the economy to campaign events to candidate quality.

Yes, there certainly have been occasions when voters were dissatisfied with the president’s performance and took an opportunity to vote for change. But there were other times when campaign events were crucial.

Polls show voters are now very unhappy with the status quo, as they have been for more than a decade. That will present a challenge for the Democratic nominee. But it is unclear how serious of a problem that will be for Clinton.

This election cycle, Republicans should benefit as the party of change after eight years of President Obama. That is true, even though they now control both houses of Congress, as Democrats did when voters went to the polls in 2008.

But the changing face of the American electorate should help the Democratic nominee offset some of that disadvantage, and the deep division within Republican ranks could well undercut the GOP message of change. The Democrats’ narrow, but real, advantage in the Electoral College also helps Clinton.

But most important, the actual campaign is likely to decide who wins next year’s presidential election.

Will Republicans make the election a referendum on Clinton’s character and trustworthiness? Will they successfully portray her as yesterday’s news and tap another round of Clinton fatigue? Will they hold her responsible for all the Obama administration’s mistakes and failures?

Or will Clinton and her party make the election about the GOP nominee or his (or her) tea party wing? Will Democrats portray the Republican Party and its nominee as hostile to immigrants, young people, women and those left out of the economic recovery?

Given the latest jobs numbers and unemployment rate, Clinton may be able to ride a growing economy to victory. Or decisions by the president over the next month might alienate more voters. It is too early to tell.

Voter fatigue with a Democratic president certainly is going to be a factor heading to the 2016 elections, and certain GOP nominees might better take advantage of that than would others. But the outcome of the next presidential election will rely on much more than that single factor.