Saturday, October 29, 2005

Second Term Jinx, Part I

First and second term presidential approval, 1945-2005.

There has been a predictable flurry of articles on the presidential second term "jinx". Some examples are The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday to name only a few. This morning's Milwauke Journal Sentinal has a rare sane view.

The evidence for second term decline is relatively weak. Two of the five two-term post-war presidents have improved their second term standing over that of the first. (The final story is not yet written for Bush.) Truman, Ike and Nixon all are lower on average in the second term, though Ike's low isn't that low. Reagan has a slightly higher median in the second term than the first. Clinton breaks the mold with clearly higher second term ratings than first, and that despite being impeached!

But no matter what, five cases do not amount to an inevitable second term jinx. Truman had post-war economic adjustments and then Korea. Ike had a weak economy in the second term, Nixon had Watergate, Reagan Iran-Contra and Clinton Lewinsky. So scandals haven't been uncommon, but not universal either.

President Bush's current problems are much more like Truman 's and Eisenhower's problems-- driven by political decisions and policies started in the first term. With the Libby indictment this week, there will be a "scandal" as well, but it wasn't the scandal that drove his ratings down this year-- it was the failure of the social security proposal, the long term costs of the war, and then topping that off with gas prices, hurricanes and a less than brilliant nomination.

It is hard to argue that 3 out of 5 cases constitute a clear pattern of poor second terms. Rather it looks like a toss up.

There is another problem with the second term jinx argument: it ignores those presidents who had a first term "jinx" and never got to serve the second term. Recognizing this selection bias in second term jinxes wipes out any remaining argument for systematic decline in the second term.

We have five postwar presidents with 2nd terms (not counting Bush) three of whom do clearly worse in the second term. Compare that with the four ONE term postwar presidents who had such bad first terms they couldn't win reelection. (Johnson, and Ford are special cases, neither initially elected but both eligible for another term). So it looks to me like four presidents had "jinxes" in the first term, and three of five had "jinxes" in the second term. It isn't a jinx.

When you do bad in the first term, you don't get to have a second. When you do ok in the first, there is still a just about even chance (3/5) that the second term is worse than the first. I conclude there is no systematic difference between first and second terms, at least in presidential approval ratings.

I'll have more to say on this soon. Posted by Picasa