Sunday, October 18, 2015

Scratching the Six-Year Itch

For the last seven or eight years, American voters have seemed to be intent upon turning history on its ear.

They elected and re–elected a black president while taking away his party's advantages in first the House and then the Senate. Aggrieved Democrats have complained that, somehow, the system is rigged against them in midterms. Yet, while these congressional shifts were extreme by historical standards, the pattern has been unmistakable.

The party that is not in possession of the White House almost always does better in midterms than the party in power. Sometimes the Democrats benefit. Sometimes the Republicans benefit. Depends on who holds the White House.

It is Americans' way of preventing the political pendulum from swinging too far in one direction or the other. We like to think of ourselves as fair and balanced, tolerant of all and open to all — whether we really are or not — and we use the ballot to pursue equilibrium. (If we ever actually achieve equilibrium, it is short–lived.)

I have written of this before, and you can find those posts archived elsewhere on this blog.

But a lot of that has addressed congressional politics. It naturally leads to an interesting phenomenon I have observed in presidential politics — but have not written about. Others have, though, to an extent. I think political analyst Charlie Cook wrote something to the effect that, in discussions of presidential politics, whenever the conversation turns to the dynamics of a campaign, the introduction of the phenomenon is "as sure as the sun coming up in the morning."

It is called the "Six–Year Itch," and it holds that voters are inclined to look favorably upon the out–of–power party by the time the current administration has been in place for six years. This really goes beyond the midterm elections, which, as I say, almost never go well for the incumbent party, and has more to do with the popularity of the incumbent during the time of the midterms.

After all, even popular presidents see their parties lose ground in midterms, especially second midterms (which fall in a re–elected president's sixth year in office). About a week before the second midterm of his presidency, Ronald Reagan's approval rating was 63% — but his personal popularity failed to help his Republican Party maintain its grip on its majority in the Senate — a majority it had held since Reagan was first elected in 1980.

Voters, though, treat legislative elections and executive elections differently. Following the '86 midterms, Reagan's popularity took a beating during the Iran–Contra affair, but he bounced back and helped his vice president win the presidency two years later when he was constitutionally prevented from running.

Following Barack Obama's re–election in 2012, the Washington Post sought to shoot holes in the notion of a six–year itch.

"It's overrated," wrote Aaron Blake for the Post. He wrote that column, it is worth noting, less than six weeks after his employer endorsed Obama's re–election bid so you need to consider that as a counterweight to Blake's argument. I was inclined to agree with him, to an extent, when he wrote, "It's not so much that a second midterm isn't trouble for an incumbent president, as much as midterms in general are trouble. And the American public scratches that itch nearly as often in a president's second year as in his sixth year."

That, it seems to me, supports what I wrote about that political pendulum correction. So does the fact that today more Americans than ever do not identify with either party and call themselves independent.

Whether they do so consciously or not, I think most Americans are inclined to give a president — of either party — the two four–year terms in office to which he is constitutionally limited, all things being equal. I guess Americans tend to be reluctant to admit having made a mistake in electing someone a first time. But it depends on what he does with his first four years, and experience tells me that is largely a matter of perception.

If a negative perception takes hold early — if the president suffers a string of setbacks at the start of a presidency — and the perception of misfortune is allowed to harden, it can be almost impossible to overcome. If the president is perceived to have made a mess of things — as Jimmy Carter was — voters look elsewhere for leadership. If a president is perceived to have exceeded expectations, that reservoir of good will makes a landslide re–election likely.

That, I think, is a big reason why some presidents who don't seem to share the same belief system with many of their constituents nevertheless win their votes for second terms.

In those second terms, a president's popularity really is more of a concern to whoever his party nominates to replace him. That is the true coattail effect of which political analysts often speak, and it is the last (if not only) opportunity for a president to have an electoral influence. Coattails are not really factors in House and Senate midterm elections, which are not national and tend to be decided by issues that matter only within the boundaries of states and congressional districts, but they can be factors in national campaigns.

But there is a catch.

Historically, the United States has not been likely to elect candidates who are nominated by an incumbent president's party to succeed that president. Well, I guess that should be narrowed down to the post–World War II period. Prior to the war, the United States was hardly hesitant to stick with the same party in more than two consecutive presidential elections.

It elected Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, then elected the man who succeeded him following his death and just prior to the end of the war, Harry Truman, to a full four–year term of his own. Just prior to FDR's time, Republicans won three straight elections. In fact, Woodrow Wilson's two terms in office in the early 20th century and Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms in the late 19th century were the only interruptions in a period when Republicans won 14 of 18 national elections.

But since World War II and Truman's decision not to seek another term in 1952, Americans have only elected the same party three straight times once. That was in the 1980s, when Reagan won twice and then his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him.

Reagan, as I pointed out, enjoyed solid approval ratings just before his party sustained significant Senate losses in 1986 — but that was on the legislative side. His personal popularity benefited Bush in the 1988 election.

Not that Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, didn't seem to do everything in his power to sabotage his own campaign.

And that, I think, underscores an important point about the six–year itch. It is susceptible to the dynamics that are unique to each campaign.

The popularity of the incumbent president seems to have a lot to do with the outcome, but that is no guarantee. Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed approval ratings that exceeded 50% for much of his presidency, but his vice president lost narrowly in his first bid for the presidency.

That leads me to another observation: It is also important for the president's would–be successor to take advantage of the resource of a popular incumbent. To my knowledge, Richard Nixon never distanced himself from Eisenhower, but the Republican ticket was hurt by the recession the country experienced in 1960.

Al Gore didn't embrace the popular Bill Clinton in 2000, and that was a decision that apparently cost him the presidency. Clinton's approval rating just before the 1998 midterms was over 60%, but Gore, while winning the 2000 popular vote, lost the Electoral College.

Since the advent of the polling era, few presidents have been popular with a majority of voters at the ends of their presidencies, and their would–be successors suffered for it. In 1966, after six years of the Kennedy–Johnson presidency, Democrat Lyndon Johnson had an approval rating of about 43% — roughly the share of the vote his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, received on Election Day two years later.

1974, after nearly two full terms of the Nixon–Ford presidency, Republican Gerald Ford's approval rating was around 47%, and he narrowly lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

History says the voters will have an itch to scratch next year, and Obama, like Ford, hovers below the 50% mark. Ford, of course, had the advantages of incumbency in the election year of 1976, and Obama will not be allowed to seek a third term, which suggests that 2016 will be an uphill climb for the Democrats' nominee.

It looks like it will be the Republican's race to lose.

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