This would be seven successful attempts to win at least a third consecutive term. How many times has one party or the other failed to win a third consecutive term after having won two? Six: 1860, 1920, 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000. It is interesting to note that in three of these five failed attempts – 1960, 1968, and 2000 – only a fraction of the vote separated the two parties. ~Jay Cost

Mr. Cost’s election-counting would be a lot more persuasive if he took the same care with historical analysis that he insists other people take with methodology.  Why didn’t Donatelli include pre-War of Secession elections?  Could it be that the political context before the War was sufficiently different to make meaningful comparisons extremely difficult?  What possible value could be found in making comparisons with the six consecutive terms of Virginia Republicans in the early 19th century?  Is the America of 2007 in any way really politically comparable to America, c. 1807 or 1817?  Why might Donatelli not include war and Reconstruction-era elections?  The answer is obvious: 1860 was an unusually divided election, 1864 was fought under extraordinary domestic wartime conditions and during Reconstruction the game was effectively rigged each time in favour of the forces of occupation, er, the Republican Party.  The one time Tilden should have won, which ended up being the third consecutive GOP term following Grant’s two terms, his victory was taken from him in the “corrupt bargain.”  Properly speaking, the GOP did not actually legitimately win the election of 1876, but kept power as a result of the bargain.  Likewise, 1868 would not have been perceived as an election to a third consecutive Republican term, because most of Lincoln’s second term was served out by his Democratic Vice President.  1872 was obviously an incumbent’s election.  Because of the “corrupt bargain,” 1880 does not really belong to a string of consecutive GOP victories, but represents the break in between the Tilden and Cleveland victories.  FDR was excluded from any comparisons because the advantages of incumbency in 1940 made the contest fairly one-sided.  In other words, FDR’s third consecutive term is not a useful comparison, since no one before or after ever sought to be re-elected a second time.  Hence Donatelli’s qualifications about nonincumbents. 

I grant that Donatelli made a misleading statement when referring to Taft as the winner of a third consecutive term for his party.  It was the fourth consecutive election won by a Republican.  T.R.’s 1904 win is the relevant comparison we should look at, if we want a 2008 comparison, not Taft’s 1908 win.  However, the McKinley-Roosevelt-Taft sequence is highly unusual for at least one reason: most of Roosevelt’s first term was the completion of McKinley’s second, since McKinley was assassinated after his re-election.  Taft was succeeding a President who had been elected in his own right only once, but who had served the better part of two terms.  It might therefore seem at first glance as if Taft was succeeding a President who had won two consecutive elections, when he was actually only succeeding a one-time electoral victor.  The uniqueness of this sequence might tell us something about its poor value for comparison with other periods. 

The best comparison for the relatively unique 2008 cycle is 1928, when the party controlling the White House won the election but did not run an incumbent President or Vice President (where did you go when we needed you, Charles Dawes?*).  1904 and 1988 are poor comparisons for just this reason: the incumbent  President or Vice President was effectively running on a “four more years” platform.  To some degree, any nonincumbent, even if he is from the same party, cannot receive the same credit or blame that accrues to members of the current administration.  Indeed, the main hope that the GOP has is that their eventual nominee runs away from the current administration.  Since that seems unlikely, GOP chances of performing the difficult post-war task of winning a third consecutive term are even worse.  The circumstances in which each election takes place are all important: Hoover’s victory came during a time of peace and prosperity while 2008 will take place in a time of war and general dissatisfaction.  For that matter, 1904 and 1988 were also peacetime elections. 

What we can say with absolute confidence is that no nonincumbent member of an outgoing administration’s party has ever won an election during an ongoing war.  We can say this because the coincidence of an open election during a war that has lasted more than five years has never occurred in the past.  Wartime Presidents usually either win their wars, die in office or choose not to seek re-election.  It has never happened that a President has been re-elected during wartime and the war has continued beyond the end of the second term.  In this respect, there are no clear points of comparison for 2008.  All trends nonetheless point to a repudiation of the party responsible for the war, which is what happened in 1952 and 1968.

*This is a joke.