Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The "Zero Year" Election Syndrome and 2020

Aug 16, 2020

The "Zero Year" Election Syndrome and 2020

tags: Constitution,presidential history,executive branch,Alexander Hamilton,separation of powers,Federalist Papers

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

American Presidential history has been plagued with what many have termed the “Zero Election Year Syndrome”.

This relates to the reality that every twenty years, a presidential election occurs in a zero-numbered year, and it has been a hex on those Presidents who have been elected.

Seven times in a row, between 1840 and 1960, the President elected in a year ending in zero has died in office, as follows:

William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died a month into his term, on April 4, 1841, likely of pneumonia, gained from giving the longest inaugural speech in American history on a cold, very rainy day in Washington DC, on March 4, 1841.

Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860 and reelected in 1864, was tragically assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, six weeks after his second inauguration.

James A. Garfield, elected in 1880, was shot and mortally wounded by Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881, survived much of the time in a coma for the next 79 days, but died on September 19, 1881, after six and a half months in office.

William McKinley, elected in 1896 and reelected in 1900, was shot and mortally wounded by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901 and passed away on September 14, 1901.

Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, died after two years and five months as President, from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 2, 1923.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected four times, in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, died of congestive heart failure on April 12, 1945.

John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald after two years and ten months in office, on November 22, 1963.

So four times of these seven tragedies, the President died by assassination, and the other three times of natural causes.

Add to this that Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 and 1984, was shot and seriously wounded after ten weeks in office, by potential assassin John Hinckley on March 30, 1981, but with modern medicine and surgical techniques, he survived and finished his two terms of office. There were also two lesser known threats by people who were able to gain access to White House grounds, one in 1984 and one in 1985.

Also, George W. Bush, elected in 2000 and 2004, was subjected to a number of dangerous situations, including on September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Virginia, and presented a potential threat to Bush as he flew around the nation to avoid a possible air attack on Air Force One.  

As demonstrated in my book, “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015), Bush also had potential assassination threats throughout his Presidency, including while visiting in the nation of Georgia in 2005, and also when visiting Iraq in 2008.  Additionally, there were domestic threats, “fence jumpers” at the White House, including one such case in 2001, one in 2005, three in 2006, and one in 2007.

So realistically, every one of nine “Zero election years’ winners of the Presidency faced ultimate death, in the first seven cases, or serious threats that could have led to death in the last two cases. 

Now we face the tenth straight “Zero Election Year” of a President since 1840, and there is serious concern about this so called “Syndrome”.  There are a number of good reasons for this developing feeling.

First, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the two oldest Presidents who would take the oath of office, as Trump would be older than Ronald Reagan was in his second term, and Joe Biden would be older on Inauguration Day than Ronald Reagan at the end of his second term, so the odds of a possible tragedy are there, just based on advanced age.

Second, both Trump and Biden are seen as having potential mental limitations, based on their public displays of statements that make people speculate on potential dementia, more so by far for Trump, but also concern about whether Biden will be able to deal with the stresses of the office at his advanced age.

Third, the dangers of the COVID-19 Virus Pandemic make both Trump and Biden susceptible to possibly contracting the disease, and potentially being affected by it, including the possibility of passing away, as so many cases of demise are “senior citizens”.  Both Trump and Biden are tested regularly, but that does not mean in the future that something could go awry.

Fourth, the stresses of the Presidency are greater in a time of economic collapse, and what is being called the Second Great Depression, as well as the rising racial tensions after the murder of George Floyd.  With extremism rising on both the Left and the Right in American politics, the danger of assassination grows, and it could be by anyone who is extremist or just desperate with the crises of the pandemic, as well as economic hard times, and the racial divisions that are very evident in America.  There may be less direct public contact between the President and the public at this point, but still, there is no way to insure that the threat of assassination is moot whenever the President is in a public situation.  

Finally, the fact that it has been 57 years since the last assassination of a President (John F. Kennedy); 46 years since a President left office during a term (Richard Nixon resigning); and 39 years since the last direct eyeball to eyeball assassination threat (Ronald Reagan), one must wonder about the “odds” catching up, and possible fulfillment once again of the “Zero Election Year Syndrome”.  

While the Secret Service constantly updates their technology and methods to protect the President, there is always the danger that a would be assassin or group might be more sophisticated, and be able to threaten the occupant of the White House in ways most people would never imagine possible.

So we must face the concern that the “Zero Election Year Syndrome” could return, and until the President elected in 2020 leaves office alive in 2025 or 2029, we will not be able to relax and say that the “hex” is finally broken.  Looking at history, the possibility of a President Mike Pence or a President Kamala Harris is certainly possible in this next term, but we must hope that possibility does not occur.

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