Nate Silver says the White House is not a metronome

Many political scientists subscribe to a “thermostatic hypothesis” of the two-party system suggesting that if one political party gets too hot, it is bound to cool off and vice versa. In presidential politics, I have occasionally heard of the theory of the “eight-year itch,” which suggests that it is rare and difficult for either party to win three presidential elections in a row.

If true, that’s good news for Republicans and bad news for Hillary Clinton, because in 2016 the Democrats will be going for three in a row.

On first glance at recent history, the hypothesis looks good. Start in 1952, the end of the unusual five-term winning streak by Democratic presidential candidates FDR and Harry Truman. The Repubs won two with Ike, then the Dems won two with JFK and LBJ, then the Repubs won two with Nixon. The Dems won in 1976 with Carter. After that, the string of two Reagan victories plus a third Repub win in a row by the first Bush is the only exception (in this period) to the hypothesis that it’s hard to win three in a row. Since then: two Dem terms for Bill Clinton, followed by two Repub terms for George W. Bush, followed by two Dem terms for Obama.

In his “Five Thirty Eight” blog at the New York Times, Nate Silver takes on the hypothesis and trashes it pretty hard. He throws out the thermostat metaphor and adopts the metronome (which, of course, reliably swings only so far in one direction before it must swing back in the other) and headlines his piece: “The White House is not a Metronome.”

Silver (who will soon take his statistical insights from the NYT to  goes back to 1856 (when the current two-party Republican/Democratic lineup was formed), and looks at all 12 instances in which a party that had held the White House for two terms went for a third.

Silver finds that the two-term-incumbent party won four, five or arguably six of those 12 races. (It depends on whether you count the electoral vote winner or the popular vote winner, and on how you deal with 1868, when Abe Lincoln had won two in a row but his second term was served out by his 1864 running-mate Andrew Johnson, who wasn’t much of a Republican.)

Please read Silver if you want the full treatment. But the smartest thing he does, lower down in his piece, is argue for throwing out the close races, such as the kind of vagaries that enabled George W. Bush to be inaugurated in 2001 despite losing the national popular vote. There are several other very close races that are necessary to build up the theory of the eight-year itch.

If there is some kind of big thermodynamic law of how the electorate feels toward a party that has held the White House for eight years, the workings of the law ought not to have to rely on the question of whether to count the dimpled chads.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/23/2013 - 11:09 am.

    Not sure

    I’m not quite convinced here. I’d trust the trends from the 1950’s more than I would one that looks back to the 1850’s. The political landscape changed quite a bit in that hundred years.
    Which isn’t to say that I think a switch to the GOP is a slam dunk. I’d guess that the out party has something like a 60-40 chance after eight years. That’s probably swamped by other factors, like the economy and the overall state of the world. If the next three years are as scandal plagued as the past few months have been, it’ll be a wave election for the GOP. Or maybe the genius of Joe Biden will overwhelm all opposition. Who knows?

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 07/23/2013 - 09:14 pm.


      I don’t have the greatest faith in the American voter, but why would they vote in the party that nearly destroyed the country only 8 years before?

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/23/2013 - 12:35 pm.

    Titanic shifts, such as the Democratic to Republican shift in the south, make mockery of long-term patterns. Names and labels change, people less so.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/23/2013 - 10:45 pm.

    If you’re curious

    about how Silver makes his predictions, read his book
    (The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t ).
    His statistical models take as many factors as possible into account.
    I don’t always agree with his statistical analyses, but simplistic he ain’t.

  4. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 07/23/2013 - 11:05 pm.

    Too many variables

    The “metronome” theory strikes me as relying on no more than an interesting set of coincidences. Big national issues in a president’s second term often seem to be determining factors. The conventional wisdom at least is that Korea helped to convince Truman not to run for another term while voters flocked to the seeming benign security offered by Eisenhower (abetted the first major multi-media ad campaign). Nixon-Kennedy was an extremely close race, and Johnson, undone by Vietnam, passed that unhappy legacy on to Humphrey in another very close race. Ford was undone by Nixon and Watergate, Carter by inflation and Iran. And so on. All in all, the metronome option is like watching how hemline fashions rise and fall to predict the Dow-Jones, or the “20-year curse” that had afflicted every president elected in a year ending in zero since William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. Reagan broke that cycle, if it ever existed, when he survived his assassination attempt, reinforced by the failure of that pretzel to do much harm George W.

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