In Politics, the Triple Crown Is Even More Elusive

It’s unusual for either major party to control all three branches of government in the United States.

White House Washington
Aerial view of the White House in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Vivvi Smak)

Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress and having nominated a majority of Supreme Court justices — is even rarer.

The Democrats last did it in 1969 while the Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush but had not done it since 1931 until then.

With the recent death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, however, both parties have a shot at doing it this election: the Democrats if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump then have a chance at making history. One of them could soon become political stud while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress — but not the Supreme Court — was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Barack Obama’s first term.

Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007 and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015 and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become a Democrat-leaning independent.)

Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republican’s bane was the House of Representatives (one of the two houses of Congress, the other being the Senate). For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928.

Winning big in the House in the election of 2010 (the first election following “the Great Recession”) was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the United States had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries and the Republicans were thus able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats could. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash).

That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed a Republican-appointed majority Supreme Courts for decades (until Scalia’s death this year), a legacy of having controlled the White House for twenty out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992 (under Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush). At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, in fact, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democratic president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, though. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in American history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years.

According to some Democrats, this court majority was not only unlucky but also, of late, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican court that ruled Bush Jr. defeated Al Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the court during his two terms in office.

Odds for 2016

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their polls-only or “polls-plus” forecast).

While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year.

They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Nixon or Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent.

Historical circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time.

The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W. Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007 and frustration with the Iraq War.

The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election and they were also bolstered by dot-com stock crash, which happened a few months into Bush’s presidency, and 9/11, which happened eight months or so into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington DC and Tennessee).

Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American-Vietnam War.

It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s — and even Obama’s — feigned religiosity, Carter was a devout Southern Democrat. (It is notable also, by the way, that the past four Democrats who have won presidential elections — or five, if you count Gore — were Southern Democrats. This is counting Obama as a Southern Democrat, which may not be entirely unfair; Hawaii is the southernmost state, Obama was raised by his Kansas mother and grandparents and African American society in Illinois is recently rooted in the South.)

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington during the eras around World War I, the Depression, World War II and most of the postwar generation while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the Roaring Twenties, then took office again following Democratic president Harry Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam.

In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939 to 1952 and from 1962 to 1969. The Republicans had it from 1921 to 1931. The most impactful of these periods was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, given the military and economic circumstances of his presidency. By the time he left office, FDR had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court.

That is all in the past, though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969 and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republican will get their first Triple Crown since 2006.

Clinton or Trump, in spite of being disliked by such a large share of the electorate, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, August 12, 2016.