By Robel Daniel October 29, 2016
It sure looks like Hillary Clinton will become our next president. Our statistical model puts Secretary Clinton at a 99% chance of winning on November 8th. Other election forecasts project similar results; at the time of writing, the Princeton Election Consortium puts her chances at 99%, The Huffington Post at 98%, and The New York Times' The Upshot at 91%. FiveThirtyEight is more bullish on Trump, with their polls-only model predicting an 81% chance of a Clinton victory. No matter what your preferred model is, all of them show Clinton with an overwhelming chance of winning the presidency. This is despite her low favorability, which has hovered around 42% for the past month—a historically low number, but better than Donald Trump’s favorability, which has oscillated around 32% over the same time frame. If Clinton wins this election, Mr. Trump will presumably not be her opponent again in 2020, so her low favorability may come back to bite her in a re-election bid.
Historical factors demonstrate that a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would have a difficult time seeking re-election: the last time any party held the White House for more than three consecutive terms was 1933-1953, when immensely popular Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to four terms. FDR died in office during his 4th term, and his vice president Harry Truman was re-elected after finishing FDR’s term. The country was very different at that time; FDR and Truman served throughout the entirety of the Great Depression and World War II, for example. Landslide victories in presidential elections were also much more common in that era than they are now.
More recent precedents show that a party is unlikely to hold the White House for four terms in the modern era. In fact, the last time a party held the White House for even three terms was 1981-1993, and examining 2016 in the context of the 1988 election reveals some insight into the likelihood of a second term for Clinton.
Compare President George H. W. Bush to the hypothetical President Hillary Clinton. Both served in the administration of the previous president: Bush as President Reagan’s vice president, and Clinton as President Obama’s secretary of state. Both followed popular two-term presidents: Reagan finished his term with a 63% job approval rating, and Obama's job approval rating is at 53% and trending upwards. On a qualitative level, both were considered less charismatic than the incumbent, and both were viewed as vanilla characters that would continue the work of the previous president. Bush admitted during his election campaign that he was a boring candidate, and Clinton acknowledged that she does not have the charisma of Obama or her husband.
Perhaps most importantly, both Bush and Clinton faced notoriously weak nominees from the opposition party. Michael Dukakis, who ran opposite Bush in 1988, was the subject of the infamous tank photo, and consequently was painted as a fool. In addition, his performance in the second presidential debate hurt him in the public eye. Similarly, Trump has generated more than a few infamous soundbites this election, and is the most unpopular major party nominee since favorability rankings started being tracked.
Bush ended up losing his 1992 re-election bid to Bill Clinton, and Clinton's circumstances are similar enough to Bush that they currently cast doubt on her ability to win a second term. However, there is a silver lining for Clinton: this historical speculation is contingent on an important factor. Namely, the GOP must field a more popular candidate for the 2020 general election. Bill Clinton was charismatic and centrist, which allowed him to win a huge number of electoral votes. Is it likely that the GOP will field a candidate as popular as Bill Clinton to prevent four terms of Democrats in the White House?
If one looks at 2016 as an example, it doesn’t seem like it. Donald Trump won a significant plurality of the primary vote over a large field of candidates, and he has an unalienable base that rails against Republicans that don’t support him. If “Trumpism” is the future of the GOP, then there's a catch-22: only a moderate candidate can win the general election, but that candidate won't be popular enough within the Republican party to win the primary and make it to the general election. Even if the GOP pushes a moderate candidate through the primaries—or at least a more favorable candidate—there remains the possibility that Trump’s base of voters may be less likely to turn out for such a candidate in the general election. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton seems to be more liked when she's not campaigning, and it’s hard to predict if her favorability will stay low without knowing what she will accomplish in her first term.
In conclusion, the historical record indicates an uphill battle for a President Clinton re-election, but only if the GOP can overcome its internal turmoil to field a candidate acceptable to the general electorate.