With the help of David Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections, I have compiled the popular vote and percentage of the total vote the presidential candidate of the party which would govern for each of nine electoral “cycles” going from 1912 through 2008. (Available below the jump.)
By electoral cycle, I mean a series of the three elections starting with the one which caused a shift in partisan control of the White House, i.e., in 1912, the partisan control shifted from Republican (William Howard Taft) to Democratic (Woodrow Wilson). Sometimes, in the third election in the cycle, partisan control would switch back as it did in 1920, 1960, 1968, 2000 & 2008. Other times, the incumbent party would retain the White House as happened in 1928, 1940 and 1988.
In each case, a distinct pattern emerges. The party which comes to power in the first election will gain votes and increase its percentage of the vote in the second, then see a decline, sometimes substantial, in the third.
There are, however, only two exceptions.
In the second election in the 1920s cycle, 1924, Calvin Coolidge won fewer votes (and a smaller percentage of the vote) than he did his erstwhile running mate Warren G. Harding four years previously. Four years later, Herbert Hoover would get more votes than either of his two partisan predecessors, but a lower percentage than did Harding. That said, the pattern holds if we begin the cycle in 1924 and end it in 1932. Increase from 1924 to 1928, decline in 1932.
In the 1990s cycle, Al Gore got more votes in 2000 than Bill Clinton had in 1992 or 1996, but, in the first two elections in that cycle, there had been a major third party candidate, Ross Perot. The pattern does hold when you calculate the dominant party’s percentage of the two-party vote.
One minor exception: In 1920 (third election of the 1910s cycle), Democrat James Cox got more votes than did Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, but that’s because 1920 was the first election when women were allowed to vote.
So, why I am sharing all this with you? To show that there is historical pattern here which suggests that Republicans stand in good stead for 2016. No president, until this week, has ever won reelection with fewer votes than he had in his initial election. And save for 1928*, his party has always seen a drop-off (usually quite significant) from the second to third election in the cycle.
Obama didn’t get that popular vote bump that Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson (running as Kennedy’s successor), Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got. His party is likely to see a further decline in 2016, though the example of Herbert Hoover in 1928 does provide some hope that they might break the pattern.
Below, I provide the presidential election year, the number of votes the candidate of the dominant party (for the cycle) received and his percentage of the popular vote.
1912 (6,296,284; 41.84%) 1916 (9,126,868; 49.24%) 1920 (9,139,661; 34.15%)
1920 (16,144,093; 60.32%); 1924 (15,723,789; 54.04%); 1928 (21,427,123; 58.21%); 1932 (22,821,277; 39.65%)
1932 (22,821,277; 57.41%) 1936 (27,752,648; 60.80%) 1940 (27,313,945; 54.74%)
1952 (34,075,529; 55.18%), 1956 (35,579,180; 57.37%); 1960 (34,108,157; 49.55%)
1960 (34,220,984; 49.72%); 1964 (43,127,041, 61.05%) 1968 (31,271,839; 42.72%)
1968 (31,783,783; 43.42%); 1972 (47,168,710; 60.67%); 1976 (39,148,634; 48.02%)
1980 (43,903,230; 50.75%); 1984 (54,455,472; 58.77%); 1988 (48,886,597; 53.37%)
1992 (44,909,806; 43.01%)*; 1996 (47,400,125; 49.23%)*; 2000 (51,003,926; 48.38%)
2000 (50,460,110; 47.87%); 2004 (62,040,610; 50.73%); 2008 (59,950,323; 45.60%)
*You could also say 2000, but there was a third party presence in 1996. If we look at the dominant party’s percentage of the two-party vote in 1996 (54.73%), then the pattern holds. (And if you go by two-party percentages, Wilson actually saw a decline from 1912 to 1916 no matter which major party you count as the second major one in 1912.)
FROM THE COMMENTS: David offers an instructive critique of my optimistic assessment:
Learning from the past is good but thinking that it somehow reflects the future is misguided. Republicans won’t win again until they recognize and correct the reasons why a large portion of their base stayed home and didn’t vote in one of the most polarizing elections of the last 30 years.
I’ll quibble with the first sentence and agree with the second. Republicans do need figure out why a huge chunk of our base stayed home this year. In a subsequent post, I will be suggesting that the national and state parties do focus groups, identifying GOP voters who shoed up in ’08, but not ’12.
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