One political myth which has long existed, and has been repeated many times in the media this election year, is that it is rare for a political party to have more than two consecutive terms of office (eight years) in the Presidency, before the other political party regains control of the White House.
History tells us instead that it is very common for a political party to keep the Presidential office for much more than two terms. It turns out that for a total of 8 times and 132 years of the 220 years of the Republic between 1789 and 2009, there was the reality of multiple terms of the Presidency being in the same party’s hands, as follows:
Between 1789-1801, the Federalist Party held the Presidency, before there was a White House, and with the Federalist Party only really organizing after 1794, but both George Washington for eight years and John Adams for four years pursued similar beliefs in policies, although Washington never became engaged in party politics, which he clearly deplored.
Then, between 1801-1825, the Democratic Republicans under Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe controlled the White House, breaking up into two opposing groups, the Democrats and the National Republicans, with the Presidential Election of 1824, when John Quincy Adams became President, despite the fact that Andrew Jackson had more popular and electoral votes.
The Democrats under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren then controlled the White House from 1829-1841, losing control in the Presidential Election of 1840, due to the Panic of 1837 and the frontier appeal of Whig nominee William Henry Harrison.
So three times before the Civil War years, the Federalists, followed by the Democratic Republicans, and then the Democrats held the Presidency for 12, 24 and 12 years respectively, a total of 48 years out of 72 years up to 1861, or two thirds of the time.
We would then see three periods of Republican Party dominance of the Presidency, with the first being 1861-1885, under Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester Alan Arthur, although Democrat Andrew Johnson served all but the first six weeks of Lincoln’s second term after succeeding to the Presidency, and becoming embroiled in disputes and controversies leading to an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from office by impeachment. The split in the Republican Party by 1884 over civil service reform, and the formation of the Mugwumps, caused the defeat of the Republicans by Democrat Grover Cleveland. But this was the second and last time that a political party held control for as long as 24 years.
Then, the Republicans held the Presidency again for 16 years from 1897-1913, under William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. This streak ended when Roosevelt came back from retirement to challenge his own chosen successor, Taft, and form the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912, leading to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, despite his having only won 42 percent of the total national popular vote.
After eight years under Wilson, the Republicans came back for a period of 12 years from 1921-1933 under Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, only ended by the coming of the Great Depression, which ended the natural Republican majority that had existed from 1861-1933. But altogether, the Republicans had controlled the White House for 52 out of the total of 72 years over the three periods of consecutive control of the Presidency, so again more than two thirds of the time period.
The Democrats, a much changed party from the time of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, proceeded to dominate the Presidency for the next 20 years, from 1933-1953, the third longest period of control after 1801-1825 and 1861-1885. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed America, and Harry Truman continued the FDR agenda for nearly eight years after FDR’s passing early in his fourth term. The feeling of the need for change, and the candidacy of nonpartisan General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, ended the Democratic control.
The Republicans had their last period of dominance of the Presidency between 1981-1993 under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and saw it ended when President Bush faced not only Bill Clinton, but also the strong independent candidacy of businessman Ross H. Perot in 1992, with Perot gaining 19 percent of the vote, the second highest percentage for a third party or independent candidacy after Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912, which won 27.5 percent of the national popular vote. The ongoing Recession of 1992 also harmed Bush’s chances for a second term. So from 1933 to 1993, we had one-party dominance for a total of 32 years, slightly more than half the time.
So altogether, the consecutive years of party control were the Federalists for 12 years; the Democratic Republicans for 24 years; the Democrats for 32 years a century apart and two periods of time; and the Republicans for 64 years over four periods of time in the last half of the 19th century through to the late 20th century. Thus, for 132 years out of 220 through to 2009, we have had eight periods of one party in control for more than two consecutive terms, twice for 24 years, once for 20 years, once for 16 years, and four times for 12 years each time. That is 60 percent of the time. This brief account proves that the belief that it’s rare to see two consecutive terms of the same political party in the Presidency is a pure myth.
Now, if the Democrats win a third term in the Presidency to follow Barack Obama, we will be in the 9th period of one party control for more than two terms, and with the Electoral College advantage that seems clear for the future, they may keep the White House for a very long period of years.
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015).