We Are Due For A One-Term President

April 1st, 2018 | T. Carter
trum one term

Statistically, the odds are stacked against American presidents. Of the 44 presidents before Donald Trump, more than half served less than two full terms—that includes the ones who resigned or lost their lives while serving. Of the past 43 presidents, only 16 have ever been elected to a second consecutive term. The number of presidents who won a second term becomes 17 if we include Grover Cleveland, who won a second, non-consecutive term and is counted as both the 22nd and 24th president. Historically, the odds of winning re-election are about 37%. This means that—after three consecutive two-term presidencies—America is overdue for another one-term president.

The odds have been stacked against Donald Trump since before he beat Hillary Clinton and, with the Mueller investigation reaching its never-ending tentacles deeper into Trump's business, the odds of Donald Trump being our next one-term president are high. However, Trump's ability to beat all the odds might take him to a successful second term—only if he survives a Democrat landslide in November and the probable impeachment proceedings that would follow.

Obama's re-election in 2012, as inevitable as it looked, was already historic in its own right. Obama became the third consecutive two-term president in a row, a feat that is nearly impossible according to history. Starting with Bill Clinton, America saw a successive line of three consecutive two-term presidents for the first time in history. This new trend has made it seem as though second terms are inevitable and easy to achieve—but don't be fooled. They didn't become common or reoccurring until the dawn of the new Millennium, which is quite recent.

This recent trend of re-election could be credited to several things, including luck, chance and global and economic stability or instability. But a more likely reason for this new trend could be the expanse and growth of media, whether it is mainstream media or social media. People are more connected now than ever before and information spreads at lightning speed. With all of this comes new political strategies and campaigning tactics, all of which have been significantly improved and perfected since the defeat of George HW Bush in 1992.

The spread of mass media has changed America's political environment drastically, but it still requires a great deal of skill and adaptability to achieve electoral success and a first term—nevermind a second term. The campaign or candidate that adapts to the 21st Century's quickly evolving media and information environment wins the race. Each recent two-term president, starting with Bill Clinton, was able to adapt and utilize the media in ways that their opponents could not.

Donald Trump used media in ways that Hillary could not, but will he be able to repeat his success using the same methods and strategy? Not likely.

America's collective mood changes faster and faster with each new technological step forward in media and information. The two are likely connected in ways that sociologists and phsychologists might not understand, so keeping ahead of the curve is important if Donald Trump wants to repeat his success in 2020. Bad news and good news travel faster than they did in 2012, just as information travelled faster in 2012 than it did in 2008, 2004 and 2001. With every election, news travels faster and it is usually whoever has the biggest reach—and whoever can reach an audience faster—that wins the day in this 24 hour news cycle. In 2016, it was Trump who mastered the message, the medium and the speed.

There are other factors too, like a strong economy and a general sense of ease among Americans, as well as who the other party chooses as their nominee. All of these factors have combined in ways that have made the past three presidents more than lucky—although there was still a bit of luck at play.

In 2008, Barack Obama had luck on his side when John McCain won the Republican nomination. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote and had luck on his side in Florida and the Supreme Court. In 1992, Bill Clinton had luck on his side when Ross Perot ran as a conservative third-party candidate. As for their second terms, all three of them used media and effective campaigning to win re-election, but in each case, Americans were either feeling content, confident or vulnerable.  


In 1994, things were looking bad for Bill Clinton after Democrats lost Congress in the mid-term elections, but the Clinton campaign pulled it together and used effective campaign messaging and available media to beat Bob Dole in 1996. The biggest positive factor on Bill Clinton's side in 1996, though, was not just Ross Perot (again), it was economic momentum. Following five years of steady economic growth and a GDP increase of nearly 5% by October 1996, Americans were content about the direction their country was headed. Because Americans were content, they were unenthusiastic about changing presidents and the 1996 election saw one of the lowest turnouts in over 70 years. In addition, Bob Dole was a terrible candidate and Ross Perot took 8% of the popular vote—which could have changed the entire outcome of the election had Perot's numbers gone to Dole.


Economic uncertainty in the homeland can be a disaster for any incumbent president, but uncertainty about what is happening outside in a chaotic world can be a blessing. Off the heels of September 11th and two wars, Bush offered Americans a sense of ease, order and security in a time of global chaos and vulnerability. For years leading up to 2004, Bush had approval ratings in the 60s and—although his approval declined—it rarely dipped below 50% until deep into his second term.

Like Clinton, Bush also had good economic news on his side, as 2004 saw some of the highest growth in almost 5 years. Combining that with the security he offered, Bush was able to narrowly beat John Kerry with almost 51% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes.


Obama was still picking up the pieces of the 2008 meltdown in 2012. The economy was stagnating and growth was restricted, but the meltdown was over and there was hope on the horizon. Things were no longer getting worse economically and Obama took all the credit for being a steady-handed leader. His campaign had successfully convinced Americans that Republican policies were responsible for the meltdown—which was still fresh in their minds—and that going back to a Republican presidency could take America right back to 2008.

In a time of economic turmoil, Americans were reluctant to elect another Republican and Mitt Romney bore the brunt of that reluctance and animosity. Obama offered certainty and stability following years of economic chaos. His campaign also revolutionized the way political campaigning is done on social media.


It is impossible to predict exactly what might happen on the world stage politically, militarily or economically leading up to 2020. But if approval ratings are any reliable source, Americans are not feeling comfortable under Trump's leadership. That's not to say these polls are even accurate, but it isn't entirely unfathomable to think they can't be. Tensions escalated between North Korea, tariffs threw Wall Street into a tailspin and Americans feel more polarized and disenfranchised than ever before. None of these things are positive indicators for re-election, but things do look to be turning around.

Peace seems possible now with North Korea, Trump's approval rating is steadily inching upward, the Russia investigation is losing the confidence of Americans and unemployment is at an extremely healthy low. If all of these things continue, or play out positively until 2020, Donald Trump could make history by squeezing out another victory.

Another electoral victory, of course, depends on who Democrats choose to be their nominee. As for America's electoral history and the probability of second terms, they are not on Trump's side. That might be ok, because they weren't on Obama's side either.