By the Numbers: Presidential Elections 1896–2012 (For All Your 2016 Speculation Needs)

In reality, Truman defeated Dewey. That’s the joke.

Since we are now eight months from choosing a new president, every headline asks or implies one question: who’s next? I can’t answer that (just kidding; Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump), but I can give you a bunch of numbers on how these things tend to go and some unscientific theories on the next two rounds.

This also doubles as a trivia contest: all facts are off the top of my head, and all numbers derived from that. I’m confident it’s correct, but eternal glory if you find an error. Welcome to PoliticSplainer.

Between 1896 and 2012 (inclusive) there have been 30 presidential elections.

In 18 of the 30, the incumbent president’s party won.

  • 15 of those saw the incumbent president reelected.
  • 3 others saw a new president of the same party elected (Taft 1908; Hoover 1928; G.H.W. Bush 1988).
  • 5 incumbent presidents were defeated (Taft/Wilson 1912; Hoover/F.D. Roosevelt 1932; Ford/Carter 1976; Carter/Reagan 1980; G.H.W. Bush/Clinton 1992)

In 10 of them, a second-term incumbent president did not run.

  • 3 of those (Coolidge, Truman, and Johnson) became president upon the mid-term deaths of their predecessors (Harding, F.D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy, respectively), and so did not serve two full terms.
  • Grover Cleveland, the incumbent in 1896, was serving a non-consecutive second term, the only president ever to do so.

5 presidents who did not complete their terms.

  • McKinley and Kennedy were assassinated.
  • Harding and F.D. Roosevelt died of natural causes.
  • Nixon resigned.

4 periods in which a party held the White House for more than 2 consecutive terms

  • McKinley/T. Roosevelt/Taft, 1897–1913 (4 terms).
  • Harding/Coolidge/Hoover, 1921–1933 (3 terms).
  • F.D. Roosevelt/Truman, 1933–1953 (5 terms).
  • Reagan/G.H.W. Bush, 1981–1993 (3 terms).

1 period in which a party held the White House for less than 2 consecutive terms

  • Carter, 1977–1981.

1 election in which the popular-vote winner did not become president

  • G.W. Bush/Gore, 2000.

Epilogue: Why start at 1896?

For a variety of historical reasons, this is a good dividing point. The Progressive Era, the Fourth Party System, and arguably the modern presidency began around 1896, when William McKinley (R) defeated William Jennings Bryan (D) to succeed Grover Cleveland (D), the only president to serve non-consecutive terms and the only Democratic President elected in the half-century after the Civil War.