The problem with electoral history predicting Hillary’s political demise

“If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.” – Ronald Coase.

Writing in The New Republic on Sunday, John Judis argued that Hillary Clinton is likely to lose in 2016.

The reason is relatively simple: Political parties generally have a difficult time holding on to the presidency for three consecutive terms. Exiting presidents typically have low popularity, and the electorate blames the incumbent party for eight years of pent-up frustrations.

He isn’t the first to make this argument, and he won’t be the last.

Before I go into why this is a weak argument, I’ll add another pillar to it: The more presidential elections a party loses, the more moderate their nominees become, which theoretically raises their chances of ending their losing streak.

Hillary Clinton

The reports of her political death have been greatly exaggerated.

While Judis isn’t wrong on its face — parties seeking a third consecutive term have only won twice (three times if you count Al Gore) in the modern era, with Harry Truman and George H. W. Bush maintaining control of the White House — he’s basing his case on a dubiously small dataset.

After all, there have only been eight such elections (1948, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988, 2000 and 2008).

To put that in perspective, Judis’ analysis is the statistical equivalent of saying that a baseball player won’t get a hit because his batting average through the first two games of the season is .250.

There are a number of data-driven ways to poke holes in Judis’ analysis. For starters, if you walk your timeline back to include the full duration of the two-party era (1856 onward) the incumbent party has won four of eleven times (five counting Gore) when going for a third consecutive term. One could also point out that Hillary Clinton is an unprecedentedly strong candidate as measured by pre-campaign polling.

This speaks to a point that anyone with a cursory knowledge in statistics could make: It is difficult to draw significant conclusions from a small number of observations. Given how few federal elections we have had — let alone presidential elections — every one is likely to defy history in some way or another. We can identify trends, but we have nowhere near enough observations to derive political Truth.

For example, here’s the Washington Post‘s breakdown of fifteen “firsts” that happened in the 2012 elections. The big one? First president in the modern era to be re-elected with unemployment above 7.2 percent: Barack Obama. Journalists started throwing that stat around about this time four years ago, producing nifty clickbait to keep the 2012 cycle interesting. The stat, of course, ignored the fact that a president had recently been re-elected with unemployment at 7.2 percent. And that president was Ronald Reagan, who won by 15 points. At least Nate Silver was there to remind us how silly the argument was.

All this is to say that 70+ years of modern presidential history is useful qualitative guide for handicapping presidential races, but you want to make quantitative claims, you need a lot more to go on. Judis himself makes such concessions in his last paragraph, where he basically rejects his whole premise and points out that Republicans need a lot more than eight years of Barack Obama to take back the White House:

The Democrats could benefit if the Republicans nominate a relatively inexperienced right-winger or someone who possesses the temperament of a high school football coach rather than a president. But in the last elections, they opted for the more centrist contenders who had some credibility as presidential candidates. If they opt for an experienced centrist in 2016—Florida’s Jeb Bush is the obvious example—and if the party’s right wing doesn’t demand he toe the line, they could stand a good chance of reclaiming the White House and of confirming Americans’ reluctance to keeping the same party in the White House three terms in a row.

After spending a whole article (mistakenly) asserting that historical fundamentals are likely to make for a red night on Election Eve 2016, Judis accidentally sums up the 2016 cycle perfectly. History aside, if the GOP stops acting like the GOP, moves to the left and finds a way to keep from saying flamingly derogatory things about large segments of the American electorate, they have a reasonable shot at winning the presidency — even against a strong candidate like Clinton. But that’s an argument based in a qualitative analysis of current political trends, not a quantitative analysis based on decades of data.

Of course, that move to the left is highly unlikely to happen, and even if it does it won’t be Jeb Bush making it. Mother Jones has 23 reasons why.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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62 Responses to “The problem with electoral history predicting Hillary’s political demise”

  1. ComradeRutherford says:

    Yeah, I see the difference, far-right crackpot, or moderate right crackpot assistant. Some choice.

  2. mf_roe says:

    Second that! Carter raised high the Banner “Government Regulation is Bad”, don’t forget He was the one that deregulated Airlines–Basically changing their status of a regulated utility into a free for all of price gouging and the resulting destruction of truly competitive travel options.

    Dems abandoned Carter for cause–Remember “Reagan Democrats”? Carter stank so bad that his own party wanted him purged.

  3. Rambie says:

    You’re making an illogical argument. Come back when you can be coherent.

  4. mf_roe says:

    Bush/Cheney insured a Democratic Victory in ’08—–Regardless of Who the Candidate Was. Obama’s race was just some Election-Selection Insurance. For all the good it did anyone.

  5. mf_roe says:

    Hard to hear the Oligarchs laughing behind their MOB Proof Walls

  6. mf_roe says:

    George Carlin made this point very eloquently sometime ago. Democracy is DEAD as long as the citizens refuse to inform themselves———NO MATTER HOW HARD IT IS TO GET THE FACTS. Our elections are currently just “Three Card Monty” rigged games where there ISN’T Any Chance of Winning.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    You don’t have a point.

    Elections change nothing. Mass actions by mass movements do.

  8. Rambie says:

    You’re skipping my point again. Voting for 3rd party us a waste of a vote since the candidate has virtually no chance to win. We do not have a run-off ellections or perportional powers that some other countries use that are more conducive of third parties.

    How are you going to create a socialist society within the USA if you don’t win ellections?

  9. Bill_Perdue says:

    You don’t have a point to refute. Elections don’t change things.

    I’m a socialist and our goal is the creation of a workers state to criminalize wars of aggression, racism, imposed austerity, economic chaos, massive underemployment, unemployment, poverty and homelessness, low wages, attacks on the Bill of Rights, endorsement of Obama’s claim that he has the right to murder Arab Americans, union busting and the degradation of the environment.

    Those who vote for any Democrat or any Republican at any time promote those policies. I didn’t say promises because both Democrats and Republicans lie as a matter of policy. It’s what they do, not what they promise, that counts.

    Now you can tell me I’m unrealistic but any vote for Democrats and Republicans is realistically a vote for wars of aggression, racism, imposed austerity, economic chaos, massive underemployment, unemployment, poverty and homelessness, low wages, attacks on the Bill of Rights, endorsement of Obama’s claim that he has the right to murder Arab Americans, union busting and the degradation of the environment.

  10. Rambie says:

    You haven’t refuted my point. Voting for a 3rd party candidate is a waste, as they won’t win and nothing will change. So tell us how voting for a 3rd party candidate will change the, “..wars of aggression, racism, imposed austerity, economic chaos, massive underemployment, unemployment, poverty and homelessness, low wages, attacks on the Bill of Rights, endorsement of Obama’s claim that he has the right to murder Arab Americans, union busting and the degradation of the environment.”

  11. Bill_Perdue says:

    “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” — Emma Goldman

    Voting for any Democrat or any Republican at any time is voting for the policies of those parties: wars of aggression, racism, imposed austerity, economic chaos, massive underemployment, unemployment, poverty and homelessness, low wages, attacks on the Bill of Rights, endorsement of Obama’s claim that he has the right to murder Arab Americans, union busting and the degradation of the environment.

  12. Rambie says:

    A vote for a third party candidate is a waste. A third party will never get elected President and vary rarely gets elected to Senate or House.

  13. Rambie says:

    Agreed, a vote for a third party candidate is a waste. A third party will never get elected President and vary rarely gets elected to Senate or House.

  14. Rambie says:

    If you can’t see which one is the better choice of those two then I fear for this country.

  15. Bill_Perdue says:

    Sorry to dispel your illusions but Carter was a right union buster no better than the Clintons, Walker, Kasich, Reagan, Cuomo, Obama or Rahm Emanuel.

    Orlando Sentinel 05 25 1986 “The Jan. 1, 1984, breakup of the giant Bell System shrunk what had been the world’s largest telephone monopoly to one-third its previous
    size. AT&T was sent spinning into a world of non-union competitors and cheap imports…. Bearing the brunt of that cost-cutting has been the CWA, which represents 155,000 AT&T workers. Since 1983, the company has reduced its non-management work force by 42,000 through layoffs, attrition and early retirement.”

    Railway Age (a management magazine) “By stripping away needless and costly regulation in favor of marketplace forces wherever possible, this act will help assure a strong and healthy future for our nation’s railroads and the men and women who work for them…” Jimmy Carter, on signing the Staggers Act

    Mac Fleming, President, Brotherhood Of Maintenance Of Way Employees” The railroads used the Staggers Act to massively cut jobs throughout the industry, shamelessly shedding thousands upon thousands of miles of track, creating short lines that were
    thinly disguised creations of the big roads at that time.

    Liberals are the worst enemies or working people and unions because they can get away with more. That’s why they’re used for things like NAFTA, deregulation and the greatest fraud in human history, the Obama’s administration’s gift of over $7.7 trillion ($7,700,000,000,000.00) to the banksters, who stashed it gain interest.

    On Tuesday, Tuesday, the 8th of November 2016 vote socialist, write in Chelsea Manning or just sit it out. Both the Democrat and Republican parties are enemies of workers.

  16. Bill_Perdue says:

    Voting for any Democrat or any Republican is wasting your vote. Those parties are owned by the rich and cannot be reformed.

  17. Demosthenes says:

    Mr. Green: you are correct. It is far too early to even speculate with a scintilla of accuracy on Secy. Clinton and her chances in 2016. Moreover, as you note, the small sample size makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from the past. Indeed, if one actually predicted elections based upon past results, then the 2008 election of Pres. Obama would have been impossible for a whole host of reasons.

  18. GarySFBCN says:

    Never mind.

  19. GarySFBCN says:

    Perfection is the enemy of good.

  20. ComradeRutherford says:

    Hmmm, Crackpot-Far-Right-Wing Republican (Cruz/Rand/Ryan/et al) or Moderate-Right-Wing Democrat Hillary Clinton? Which one should I vote for?

    Kang: It makes no difference which one of us you vote for. Either way, your planet is doomed. DOOMED!

    The Simpsons – “Citizen Kang” – 1996

  21. ComradeRutherford says:

    Homer: America, take a good look at your beloved candidates. They’re nothing but hideous space reptiles.

    [unmasks them] [audience gasps in terror]

    Kodos: It’s true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us.


    Man1: He’s right, this is a two-party system.

    Man2: Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.

    Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away.

    [Kang and Kodos laugh out loud]

    [Ross Perot smashes his “Perot 96” hat]

    The Simpsons – Citizen Kang – 1996

  22. ComradeRutherford says:

    We can only hope that Fake Dem Hillary Clinton os somehow taken out of the running. America hasn’t seen a Real Democrat as President since Jimmy Carter inherited the Republican Nixon Debacle. We’ve had Fake Dem Bill Clinton and Fake Dem Obama, both of whom ran their races claiming to be Democrats and then instantly became right-wingers the moment the election was certified.

    I don’t vote for Fake Dems, so i didn’t vote for Clinton or Obama, and clearly I can’t ever vote for Hillary Clinton.

  23. pricknick says:

    Are you to say that hillbillary has no balls?

  24. FLL says:

    On to another excerpt from Bill Perdue’s comment:

    “Fortunately the numbers of people who fall for that scam [voting] is dwindling, as recent voting shows.”

    Actually, historical data shows a very consistent pattern of voter turnout. There’s no reason to claim that 2016 will have lower voter turnout than other presidential elections. There’s also no reason to claim that the third-party vote will be any more than the 2% in 2012 or in most elections.

  25. Rambie says:

    Agreed, voting 3rd party is a waste of your vote. Our system is sadly not tolerant of more than two major political parties. Better would be to change the parties from within and get candidates you support onto the ticket.

  26. FLL says:

    Consider two excerpts from Bill Perdue’s comment below:

    (1) “Far more important than voting, since elections change nothing, are efforts to…”

    (2) “Whatever you do don’t vote for any Democrat, any Republican or any Libertarian. They’re the enemy.”

    If Bill is being honest about (1), then he must be lying about (2), and vice versa. In statement (1), the writer states that elections have no effect. If this is true, then obviously the writer doesn’t care which way people vote. At the opposite extreme is statement (2), which is a passionate plea for progressives and liberals not to vote for any major candidate, complete with an emotional declaration that all major parties are the enemy.

    So which is it? Which statement is truthful and which is deceptive? The statements cannot both be a truthful statement of Bill’s beliefs. If, as Bill declares in statement (1), “elections change nothing,” then why is he even commenting on a thread about voting?

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”
    – Sir Walter Scott

  27. nicho says:

    So, if we’re voting on the basis of genitalia, will there have to be some test? After the Pope Joan fiasco, before a cardinal could be elected pope, they used to check to make sure he had two testicles. He would sit in a special chair and some poor monk would have to reach under the robes to fondle the pope-elect’s balls — and announce to the cardinals “Habet duo.” So, will candidates for president now have to undergo a similar procedure?

  28. nicho says:

    “Harm reduction” will prevent improvement

  29. nicho says:

    Of course, people thought that voting for the first black president was going to lead us to the promised land.

  30. nicho says:

    Yup — and the sad thing is that it was voted into law by the voters themselves with ballot propositions. This just goes to show that the voters can be scammed into voting for anything by proposition if you have enough slick ads and misinformation. Voting in CA is now nothing but a joke – and the Sheeple haven’t figured out the joke yet.

  31. GarySFBCN says:

    It’s a start to those who were being forced into sickness or death without treatment because of insurance limitations. Thanks, but “harm reduction” trumps waiting for perfection that, sadly, is years away.

    And as Mr. Perdue will correctly admonish, the Democrats did have the house in the 110th and 111th Congress and nothing was done.

  32. Bill_Perdue says:

    The fix is on.

  33. nicho says:

    Statewide. Not in the general. The general election ballot has only the top two vote getters from the primary. In the primary, you can only write in someone who has declared themselves a candidate. You can have third-party candidates on the primary, but they won’t be on the general ballot unless they are one of the top two. If enough progressives try to vote Green or Socialist in the primary, that will pretty much ensure that the general ballot will have two Republicans for the office — as happened for state senator in my district this election.

  34. Naja pallida says:

    If anything is going to cause Hilary’s political demise, it’s going to be someone running from her left. Pointing out just how extreme her positions really are. When only compared to the Republicans, she looks tame, but when compared to actual liberal values, she looks Republican.

  35. Naja pallida says:

    I keep hearing that “its a start” but I maintain that it isn’t a start, it’s a dead end. It’s a messy kludge to an impossibly broken system, that will effectively put Congress off of trying to touch health care in a positive way for another generation. The problems with it definitely have zero chance of being addressed until the Democrats win back the House… which, if the status quo is maintained, will be no time soon.

  36. pricknick says:

    And that will be further proof of the dumbing down of america.

  37. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s what I’d do. I’m surprised there are no write ins, is that statewide or local?

  38. nicho says:

    On Tuesday, the 8th of November, 2016 Vote socialist, Vote labor, vote for referendums for a decent minimum wage, write in Chelsea Manning

    Damn, I wish I could. In California, we will have two choices on the ballot for each office — most likely R and D — or in some cases R and R or D and D (rare). No write-ins allowed.

    So, it looks like the fallback position is sit it out.

  39. BeccaM says:

    “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”

    Also, past performance is no guarantee of future events, especially when the GOPers are doing all they can to alter who can and cannot vote, and when the plutocrats are rigging the entire system so they get only the bought-and-paid-for people they want in elected office, whether it’s Democrat or Republican.

  40. nicho says:

    For what?

  41. nicho says:

    For example, while ACA sucks, it is a start.

    Thats the exact same thing we heard about Medicare Part D 11 years ago. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” “It’s a start.” “Get this through and we can improve it later.” Bullshit. It’s 11 years later, nothing has changed, and it’s still a giveaway to the drug companies.

  42. Bill_Perdue says:

    H. L. Mencken – “The whole aim of
    practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an
    endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

    Its the backdrop for the evil of two lessers strategy. People are sick and tired of it.

  43. Bill_Perdue says:

    The outcome of the 2016 election will be the replacement of one rightist by another, irrespective of
    which Democrat or Republican wins.

    Wars, economic chaos caused by the insatiable greed of the rich enabled by their paid political prostitutes, union busting, massive underemployment and unemployment, poverty and attacks on civil liberties will continue without let up.

    As in every election for a century or more people who lack the will to fight will be frog marched into voting for a Republican lesser evil or a Democrat lesser evil. Fortunately the numbers of people who fall for that scam is dwindling, as recent voting shows. On Tuesday, the 8th of November, 2016 Vote socialist, Vote labor, vote for referendums for a decent minimum wage, write in Chelsea Manning or just sit it out as a protest vote. Whatever you do don’t vote for any Democrat, any Republican or any Libertarian. They’re the enemy.

    Far more important than voting, since elections change nothing, are efforts to build mass movements to organize workers in mining, big box stores and fast food, and the fight for a decent minimum wage, as opposed to the insulting and anti-worker proposals of the Democrats and Republicans.

  44. GarySFBCN says:


  45. Max_1 says:

    First Female President…
    Cult of Personality response.

    The question shouldn’t be, “What is her genitalia”
    … The question should be, “Will she be good for our future?”

  46. penpal says:

    Plenty of other people are tired of men running the country. Breaking the glass ceiling is going to be too enticing to a lot of people, regardless of what her policies are. And sure, many people dislike her but it’s not because she’s unqualified for the job. She’s hardly a fake pantsuit. She’s strong, determined, intelligent, and experienced. I personally think she’s too cynical and opportunistic to be a really good leader but I can assure you, most people don’t know anything about her policies at all and many will only cast their votes for her because she’s a woman.

  47. jomicur says:

    There are other options besides the two you mention.

  48. GarySFBCN says:

    Yes but there are differences. For example, while ACA sucks, it is a start. People who were left to die because of pre-existing conditions or coverage caps are now alive We would not have seen DADT removed. I also believe that had Gore been president, even though he was a bit of a hawk, we would not have started the Iraq war.

  49. nicho says:

    OT — sort of.

    Drug prices in the US are skyrocketing — specifically generic drugs. Prices have increased dramatically — some, not all, increasing by 8,000 percent. The other are increasing enough to price a lot of people out of the market. So while the ACA will let a lot of people see their doctors, the patients won’t be able to afford any drugs that are prescribed for them.

    Single-payer universal healthcare — no more no less. No “Medicare for all.” Single-payer universal health care.

  50. nicho says:

    Whoever the corporatists want in office will be the “lesser of two evils.” The one they don’t want will be scarier than shit. And you can take that to the bank.

  51. nicho says:

    It’s a lot like pushing the elevator call button 10 or 12 times. It gives you something to do and gives you a feeling of control, but it doesn’t make the elevator come any faster.

  52. barbarajmay says:

    Thanks for your writing. That article alarmed me, too, and I appreciate you casting it in a different light.

  53. pricknick says:

    You take too much for granted. Many can’t stand the idea of Clinton and women are too smart to vote for a fake pantsuit.

  54. nicho says:

    1. In politics, a week is an eternity. There are 100 weeks between now and the 2016 elections. Trying to make any predictions about the race, never mind the outcome, is just political geek thumb sucking. It’s like predicting the MVP of the 2016 World Series.

    2. Obama just undercut the whole party (not to mention Hill&Bill, Inc.) on Sunday morning when he said on TV that voters want “a new car smell” in 2016, handing the GOP their 2016 campaign meme. Attack ad writers are dancing a jig and dreaming up smell-related jokes for all the Democratic candidates.

  55. penpal says:

    Absolutely a lousy reason but the prospect of it is going to bring a lot of people to the polls to vote for her.

  56. GarySFBCN says:

    There are degrees of awfulness and that is why I continue to vote.

  57. UncleBucky says:

    Warren/Sanders 2016

  58. jomicur says:

    If you’re tired of it, stop doing it.

  59. GarySFBCN says:

    No argument from me. She’s a lousy choice, but I suspect the Republican will be worse.

  60. pricknick says:

    Voting to have the first woman president? That’s a lousy reason.

  61. Indigo says:

    If the GOP-ers run Jeb, it’ll be a horse race; if the GOP-ers run one of their crazies, it’ll be a carnival of obscenities but the DemAp will take the White House unless the SCOTUS rules otherwise (which it might). If Hillary runs, we’ll have the most efficient police state on the planet; if Warren runs, we’ll have a populist insurgency the likes of which has not been seen since Andrew Jackson opened the People’s House to the public.

    Ain’t we got fun?

  62. GarySFBCN says:

    Assuming that Hillary continues to be the darling of Wall Street, large corporations, etc, if I vote for her it will be because a) I will be voting against the Republican candidate and/or b) I will be voting to have the first woman president.

    But I am tired of having to choose between far-right and center-right ideologies.

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