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70 Chip

John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII

Photo: Sports Illustrated

The play that won Super Bowl XVII for the Washington Redskins, thirty years ago today (described on Wikipedia.com).

A play that was designed for gaining short yardage called “70 chip” turned out to be the key play of the game. With 10 minutes remaining, Riggins took a handoff on 4th-and-inches, broke an attempted tackle by Dolphin cornerback Don McNeal and ran for a 43 yard touchdown. The Super Bowl win was the Redskins’ first championship victory since 1942. Riggins’ total of 610 yards amounted to 43 percent of Washington’s offense in the four playoff games. His four consecutive playoff games with over 100 yards was an NFL postseason record. On December 6, 2007, Riggins’ run was voted by fans as the Redskins’ Greatest Moment.

I was just old enough to remember the crushing disappointment of losing to the 17-0 Miami Dolphins ten years earlier in Super Bowl VII. In one play, that disappointment was forgotten and the Redskins were Super Bowl Champions. They would go on to win two more Lombardi trophies in the next ten years, and I would get a little spoiled by their success. I’m not spoiled anymore. But on that day thirty years ago, I couldn’t be happier. My favorite team won their first Super Bowl. It was my greatest moment as a Redskins fan.

Obama’s Place in History

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address.

Photo: Pablo Martinez/AP

This is only the first week of Barack Obama’s second term, but it’s never too early to contemplate a president’s place in history. Statistician and champion election predictor Nate Silver does just that in his latest FiveThirtyEight post titled Contemplating Obama’s Place in History, Statistically.

Mr. Obama ran for and won a second term, something only about half of the men to serve as president have done (the tally is 20 or 21 out of 43, depending on how you count Grover Cleveland). We can also note, however, that Mr. Obama’s re-election margin was relatively narrow. Do these simple facts provide any insight at all into how he might be regarded 20, 50 or 100 years from now?

In fact, winning a second term is something of a prerequisite for presidential greatness, at least as historians have evaluated the question. It is also no guarantee of it, as the case of Richard M. Nixon might attest. But the eight presidents who are currently regarded most favorably by historians were all two-termers (or four-termers, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s case).

Silver goes on to compare historical rankings of re-elected presidents to those defeated in their bid for re-election. As expected the re-elected presidents rate better overall, with thirteen rated at least good compared with six rated fair to poor. In contrast, only one defeated incumbent, John Adams, ranks notably above average.

The worst presidents, though, are found among those that for one reason or another did not run for re-election. This group includes, perhaps unfairly, those who died while in their first term in office. Of these, only JFK ranks in the top ten, and Silver grants that this is probably due in part to a sense of unfulfilled promise.

He then goes on to rate re-elected presidents by electoral vote share and shows that the higher rated presidents tend to win by larger landslides with rare exception (Nixon). Due to Obama’s relatively small margin in comparison to this more rarefied company, Silver predicts his historical ranking to land around 17th overall, between good and average.

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A Historic President, Historically Reelected

Barack and Michele Obama and Joe and Jill Biden on election night 2012

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

In the wake of Tuesday night’s results, Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly pointed out a statistic that a lot of people might otherwise miss:

Obama’s popular vote margin has grown to 2.7 million, and he’s right at the level where he may become the first Democratic presidential candidate since FDR to win a majority of the popular vote twice.

His margin continues to grow today as the remaining votes come in—specifically the outstanding 30% in California—and the President is certain now to win a slim, but definite majority of the popular vote.

Why does this matter? Don’t we choose presidents through the Electoral College? Of course, but in the ensuing argument of what constitutes a “mandate,” Obama’s crossing of the 50% threshold for a second time is a very big deal.

As Kilgore points out, Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority twice since FDR. He’s the first candidate of either party to accomplish this feat since Ronald Reagan, and one of only four total in the last one hundred years. Here are the numbers from Wikipedia:

  • 1932 FDR (D): 57.4%, Hoover (R): 39.7%
  • 1936 FDR (D): 60.8%, Landon (R): 36.5%
  • 1940 FDR (D): 54.7%, Wilkie (R): 44.8%
  • 1944 FDR (D): 53.4%, Dewey (R): 45.9%
  • 1952 Eisenhower (R): 55.2%  Stevenson (D): 44.3%
  • 1956 Eisenhower (R): 57.4%, Stevenson (D): 42%
  • 1980 Reagan (R): 50.7%, Carter (D): 41%, Anderson (I): 6.6%
  • 1984 Reagan (R): 58.8%, Mondale (D): 40.6%
  • 2008 Obama (D): 52.9%, McCain (R): 49.7%
  • 2012 Obama (D): 50.4%, Romney (R): 48.1% (count in progress)

FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Obama. In the last 100 years, that’s it.

So what about the other two-termers? Let look at them next, beginning with the president-elect from 100 years ago today:

  • 1912 Wilson (D): 41.8%, TR (P): 27.4% Taft (R): 23.2%, Debs (S): 6%
  • 1916 Wilson (D): 49.2%, Hughes (R): 46.1%
  • 1968 Nixon (R): 43.4%, Humphrey (D): 42.7%, Wallace: (AI): 13.5%
  • 1972 Nixon (R): 60.7%, McGovern (D): 37.5%
  • 1992 Clinton (D): 43%, G.H.W. Bush (R): 37.5%, Perot (I): 18.9 %
  • 1996 Clinton (D): 49.2%, Dole (R): 40.7%, Perot (Ref.): 8.4%
  • 2000 G.W. Bush (R): 47.9%, Gore (D): 48.4%
  • 2004 G.W. Bush (R): 50.7%, Kerry (D): 48.3%

Of the remaining two-termers, Nixon and G.W. Bush managed one majority—both in their reelection— while Wilson and Clinton hold the distinction of being the only two-term Presidents never to win a majority of the popular vote, thanks at least in part to prominent third-party candidates.

And the other majorities since 1912? These were won by one-termers and vice-presidential successors:

  • 1920 Harding (R): 60.3%, Cox (D): 34.1%
  • 1924 Coolidge (R): 54%, Davis (D): 28.8% Follette (P): 16.6%
  • 1928 Hoover (R): 58.2%, Smith (D): 40.8%
  • 1964 LBJ (D): 61.1%, Goldwater (R): 38.5%
  • 1976 Carter (D): 50.1%, Ford (R): 48%
  • 1988 G.H.W. Bush (R): 53.4%, Dukakis (D): 45.7%

So we are looking at a historic reelection of an already historic president. He can now be mentioned in the same breath as FDR and Reagan, and is arguably as transformative a figure as each of them were.

We are witnesses to history—again—and if that’s not a mandate, I’m not sure what is.