January 5, 2016
The 22nd Amendment makes this a thought experiment rather than a forecast, but it remains the most important question of the 2016 election cycle.
How easily could Barack Obama (if eligible) win a third term in November 2016?
He thinks he could win. It’s easy for him to say this, after all, nobody will ever be able to prove otherwise, but from the present view, it doesn’t seem crazy. After all, he’s at least as popular as Hillary Clinton, and many observers think she can win.
The incumbent president sets a baseline for any successor. In 1908 Teddy Roosevelt was very popular. Many were surprised he didn’t attempt a (then legal) third term (he replaced the assassinated William McKinley six months into the first term).
William Howard Taft wasn’t a great candidate to replace him. He had plenty of political experience as an appointee, serving as a judge, Governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, among other things, but had never won elective office.
Starting from a very high place, he won fairly easily anyway. This was not true for Democrat James Cox in 1920. Woodrow Wilson would not and could not have won a third term. Even in his post-stroke, depleted state, he had interest in the nomination, but it wasn’t forthcoming.
Warren G. Harding won in an epic landslide. Cox wasn’t an exceptional choice, and his running mate, one Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wasn’t what he would become, but they were doomed from the beginning.
Eight years later, Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for his second full term. Five plus years in the White House was enough for Silent Cal, and Herbert Hoover was the beneficiary. Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic major party nominee, may have struggled anyway, but the odds were stacked against him.
In 1940, FDR became the one president to actually attempt a third term, and won relatively easily. He followed this up with a fourth victory in 1944, after which the option was taken away from his successors.
Harry Truman was grandfathered in, and could have run for a third term in 1952. When Estes Kefauver defeated him in the New Hampshire primary, any thoughts of another go were ended.
By Election Day, Truman was very unpopular. Democrats were on to something in not wanting to re-nominate him. Adlai Stevenson would have struggled to defeat World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower under the best of circumstances, but this didn’t help.
Ike managed to leave office in 1961 far more popular than Truman was. While health concerns would have made another run unlikely even if legal, there is reason to believe Eisenhower could have won a third term, probably without a ton of difficulty, even though his final year in office wasn’t smooth.
JFK defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in the race to succeed him anyway, but Eisenhower was not a drag on the ticket. The election was incredibly close. Some believe Nixon actually won, but voter fraud in Illinois and Texas swung the election.
Even assuming the election wasn’t stolen, it was close enough for chicanery to make a difference. Despite a very strong opponent, if any one of several things had broken differently, Nixon would have triumphed.
Lyndon Johnson was hounded from office in 1968 and passed up a chance to run for re-election. He was clearly an overall obstacle for Hubert Humphrey as he lost narrowly to Nixon.
Aside from his advanced age and the law, Ronald Reagan could have won a third term in 1988. Like Eisenhower, he was a net plus. Unlike Nixon, George H.W. Bush didn’t have to face a historic opponent. The Gipper’s coattails were more than enough to defeat Michael Dukakis.
Despite several second-term scandals (some of which Donald Trump is bringing back to our attention), Bill Clinton left office very popular and would also have likely won a third-term. The results from 1960 were repeated almost exactly.
Al Gore lost an extremely narrow contest due to facing a strong opponent and failing to take proper advantage of a mostly popular incumbent. The actual outcome will remain a matter of controversy.
As with Nixon, this proved the candidate does need to pull their own weight and the opponent matters too.
The final example is from 2008, when John McCain, a better candidate than usually given credit for, faced the perfect storm of an incumbent who could have never won a third term and a very strong opponent.
How does President Obama stack up?
Teddy Roosevelt (1908)
Calvin Coolidge (1928)
Dwight Eisenhower (1960)
Ronald Reagan (1988)
Bill Clinton (2000)
Woodrow Wilson (1920)
Harry Truman (1952)
Lyndon Johnson (1968)
George W. Bush (2008)
The president operates in a unique place. He’s spent more time underwater than a normal two-term chief executive. His current standing is no exception, running 3 to 14 points negative depending on whom you ask.
Taft and Hoover needed to mess up terribly in order to lose. That isn’t the case this time, even if Trump is the nominee. Hillary (or Bernie) will not have the benefit of an incumbent who is supported by well more than half of the voting population.
Even when Obama won re-election in 2012, his approval ratings spiked to just over 50%. At the same time, he’s never fallen noticeably below 40%. Many presidents, even popular ones like Reagan and Clinton, spent time during their tenure below his worst.
Short of an incredible, unimaginable calamity (at which point nothing anyone is predicting now matters), Obama will be able to rely on this high floor. Though he has many loud detractors, he’s likely to avoid the sub-30% range of Truman and Bush 43.
LBJ’s approval ratings were decent on Election Day 1968, but his own party was divided about him. Though many Sanders supporters think Obama should have gone further with his progressive agenda, they still mostly like the president.
Wilson dealt with severe impairment from a major stroke, a post-war mini-depression and total fatigue over his proposals for a new world order centered around the League of Nations.
Most of the people completely sick of Obama and opposed to his approach never liked him very much in the first place and few of them voted for him in 2012.
The weak incumbents saw a much larger erosion in their support between winning their previous election and a successor attempting to replace them.
This leaves the probably stronger incumbents, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton. Two of the three saw their successors fall short. We don’t know yet who or how strong the Republican opponent will be.
We do know Hillary is not an exceptional candidate. Despite having the almost universal support of the Democratic establishment, she’s struggling to put a 74-year-old Democratic Socialist away.
Should Sanders somehow win, he’s an absolute wild card. Current polling shows he would have a chance, but history says his presence in the fall campaign has no easy analogue.
Given the likely relative weakness of the nominee and the mixed at best record of successors to mostly popular presidents (which Obama doesn’t really qualify as), how can Obama realistically expect a Democratic successor?
He has one major advantage over Ike and Clinton, one he is doing his very best to exploit. Entering his final year, Eisenhower was visibly struggling just to complete his term. He was then the oldest president in American history and had faced a major heart attack, ileitis and a stroke while in office.
As such, he wasn’t an energetic presence in 1960, and often found himself reacting to events, from the downing of a U-2 spy plane over Russia and failed summit with Nikita Khrushchev, to an economic recession.
With Clinton, it was scandal fatigue. Though still personally popular, and boasting a strong economic record, the past few years were a litany of issues. The desire to forget about Monica Lewinsky filtered down to Gore running away from Clinton during the race.
Reagan was more robust than Ike and past his Iran-Contra scandal troubles as 1988 progressed. His successor did win. He is Obama’s model, as the Gipper closed the year more popular than any point in the few previous years.
The administration has stayed largely free of scandal. Like always there were issues, some of which were never fully resolved, but nothing has immobilized Obama or his primary advisors.
Still in his mid-50s, motivated to protect his legacy, the president is rushing toward his final year. Any Obama fatigue isn’t going to be visible from him. Beginning the year with an executive order on gun control is an example of what we should expect.
While you would normally expect an incumbent with these approval ratings to require a very strong successor, Obama is doing enough to tip the scales in his favor that he may just need to avoid Republicans picking a strong opponent.
If conditions in the country are mostly similar 10 months from now, expect Obama to provide more positive influence on his successor than the metrics would usually suggest.