President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) joined an exclusive and dubious club in November 2020. Trump became the ninth sitting U.S. president to lose reelection.
Trump joined seven other men who learned the hard way that the presidency does not guarantee electoral victory. So who were the presidential losers who preceded Trump, and what can we learn from them?
Here are some short historical monographs about the Presidential losers:
John Adams, the First Presidential Loser
John Adams (F-Massachusetts), the second president, was the first presidential loser. Losing was not the only first for this Founding Father. Adams was also the first president to live in Washington, D.C., and sleep in the White House.
Adams lost reelection because his party and policies were completely out of touch with the American people. To elaborate, Adams’ Federalist Party was pro-British and in favor of a powerful federal government with a professional military establishment and a central bank.
Those policies became political suicide in a country that had just fought a destructive colonial war with the British Empire. In the early 19th Century, many Americans viewed a powerful government, a central bank, and a professional military as British institutions.
The retirement and death of the Federalists’ only political star George Washington doomed the party. Adams found himself with no support and incapable of resisting the rise of Thomas Jefferson’s popular Republican Party.
In 1800, two Republicans; members of the party historians call Democratic Republicans, Aaron Burr (R-New York) and Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) received more votes than Adams. Jefferson became president after a nasty political battle in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Adams, a sore loser, refused to attend the inauguration of his friend, Jefferson, slinked off into retirement and obscurity. Adams became the first person to discover that being a presidential loser is no fun.
The former president spent the rest of his life working on his farm and writing letters complaining about the political situation. However, Adams did long live long enough to see his son elected John Quincy Adams elected president.
John Quincy Adams, the Second Generation Loser
His birth blessed and cursed John Quincy Adams (DR-Massachusetts). Adams was the heir to a Founding Father and the natural leader of America’s political aristocracy.
In the early 19th Century era of Good Feelings, a wealthy of Southern planters and New England intellectuals dominated American politics. As the son of a founder and president and a distinguished diplomat, Adams was the obvious man to lead the American oligarchy into the future.
The voters; however, had other plans. The addition of new states to the union and the beginning of popular elections led to the rise of a new class of professional politicians.
The leader and idol of the new class of professional politicians and hero of the common man was Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee). Jackson was everything Adams was not. He was a westerner, a self-made man, the son of immigrants, and a war hero. After 1824, John Quincy Adams’ career became a long feud with Andy Jackson and his successors.
The Corrupt Bargain of 1824 tainted Adams’ presidency. To elaborate, in 1824, no presidential candidate received enough votes to win. However, Jackson received the most popular and Electoral College votes.
To keep Jackson out of the White House, presidential candidate and U.S. Speaker of the House Henry Clay (DR-Kentucky) threw his votes to Adams. Consequently, Adams became president and Clay became U.S. Secretary of State. Voters never forgave Adams for the Corrupt Bargain which doomed his presidency.
To get revenge, angry Jackson supporters organized the Democratic Party, the first popular political party. In 1828, Adams’ old-fashioned ways were no match for Jackson’s new Democratic Machine. Old Hickory went into the White House.
Strangely, John Quincy Adams became the only ex-president to have a successful political career after leaving the White House. Voters elected Adams as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.
In the House, Adams used his celebrity to become Jackson’s greatest foe, and a vocal critic of the rising Slave Power in the South. In particular, Adams fought for the Constitutional rights of abolitionists to to petition Congress and use the mails to spread antislavery propaganda.
In 1848, Adams collapsed from a stroke on the Floor of the House and died in the Speaker’s Room at the U.S. Capitol. John Quincy Adams’ success at adapting to a new political landscape is in stark contrast to the next presidential loser.
Martin Van Buren
Similarly to John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren (D-New York) was the heir apparent to leadership of a political order, the Jacksonian Democracy, that collapsed under his feet.
The first president of non-British descent, the Dutch Van Buren, was the first man born after the Revolution to serve as president. Upon his election in 1836, Van Buren appeared to be the luckiest politician on Earth. He succeeded the popular Andy Jackson and led a dominant political party.
Then the Jacksonian order fell apart as reality caught up with its political fantasies. Jackson’s crackpot economic policies of destroying the Bank of the United States, the Central bank and refusing to accept paper money for Federal land purchases triggered an economic collapse that led to depression.
Meanwhile, the growing and increasingly oppressive Slave Power generated popular opposition in the North. Van Buren’s Democratic coalition fell apart as opponents began attacking Van Buren as a corrupt and arrogant aristocrat.
In 1840, Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison (W-Indiana) of the rising Whig Party. The defeat destroyed Van Buren’s reputation as a political genius.
Van Buren made two attempts to return to the White House. In 1844, he competed with Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) for the Democratic presidential nomination. By 1844, over the question of admitting Texas to the Union hopelessly divided Democrats.
Cass and Van Buren’s forces were so evenly matched, no decision was possible at the Democratic convention. The convention eventually chose Dark Horse candidate James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) as a Dark Horse. To Van Buren’s chagrin Polk went onto win the presidential election.
In 1848, Van Buren broke from the Democrats and ran as the candidate of the antislavery Free Soil Party. The Free Soilers wanted to ban slavery from all the territories Polk had conquered in the Mexican War. Van Buren came in third, but he took enough votes from the Democratic nominee, his old rival Lewis Cass, to put Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) in the White House.
After that Van Buren faded into obscurity, but he lived long enough to see the breakup of the Democratic Party in 1860 and the Civil War.
Grover Cleveland (D-New York) was the only presidential loser voters later reelected. Cleveland was the first Democrat elected president after the Civil War and the dominant political figure of his age.
Cleveland doomed his presidency with a drive for reform. As President, Cleveland worked tirelessly to replace the Jacksonian Spoils System with a professional civil service. Under the Spoils System, presidents replaced all federal officials with political supporters.
Cleveland’s effort to demolish the Spoils System put him on a collision course with America’s most powerful political machine, New York’s Tammany Hall. Tammany’s power rested on its leaders’ ability to give supporters government jobs. Cleveland’s reforms threatened that practice and Tammany’s power.
In 1888, Tammany got its revenge on Cleveland by throwing enough votes to Republicans to give Benjamin Harrison an Electoral College Victory.
Benjamin Harrison, the president elected by Tammany Hall
Today, Benjamin Harrison (R-Indiana) is best remembered as the only grandson of a president elected President. Harrison was the grandson of Van Buren’s nemesis, William Henry Harrison (W-Indiana).
Political junkies know Harrison as one of four men elected president without winning the popular vote. In 1888 Cleveland, received 5.540 million popular votes but only 168 Electoral College Votes.
Harrison received 5.439.8 million popular votes and 233 Electoral College Votes. Harrison won the Electoral College because Tammany Hall threw New York City’s vote to the Republicans. Ironically, Tammany was a staunch Democratic organization, but Tammany’s leaders hated their old enemy Grover Cleveland, more than Republicans.
Harrison was a lackluster president who saw little happen on his watch. One of the few notable events of Harrison’s Presidency was the Massacre at Wounded Knee, an atrocity sometimes labeled the last battle of the Indian Wars.
By 1892, Tammany and Cleveland had made peace. That allowed Cleveland to win the election with 277 Electoral College votes and 5.557 million popular votes. Harrison received 145 Electoral College votes and 5.176 million popular votes.
Harrison went back to practicing law and found some fame as a political commentator before dying in obscurity. Cleveland weathered a catastrophic second term marred by economic collapse, depression, widespread civil unrest, and the near collapse of the Democratic Party.
William Howard Taft
His charismatic celebrity predecessor Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) thwarted Taft’s reelection efforts.
Teddy unrealistically expected William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) to continue all of his policies and appoint the officials he wanted. Instead, Taft picked his own team and changed many policies.
Ironically, the two political giants came to blows over the US Forest Service. Groundless charges that Taft’s Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger (R-Washington) was opening federal lands to mining companies triggered a scandal.
The scandal’s chief proponent was Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, who began making nasty attacks on Ballinger and Taft. An angry Taft fired Pinchot. Pinchot travelled to Europe and intercepted Roosevelt who was returning from Safari in Africa.
Pinchot convinced Teddy that Taft was betraying the Progressive cause. Ultimately, those charges led Teddy to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. The Republican Establishment blocked Roosevelt’s return through a series of backroom deals.
Consequently, Roosevelt ran for President on the insurgent Progressive or Bull Moose Ticket and received more votes than Taft. That enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) to win the election.
After leaving the White House, Taft had a successful career. The ex-president served as a law professor at Yale. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) appointed Taft Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Taft served as Chief Justice until 1930.
President Herbert Hoover (R-California) was a victim of his time. Hoover lost reelection because the America that elected him died during his first term.
In 1928, Hoover won a landslide victory by winning 444 Electoral College votes. Hoover’s opponent, popular Governor Al Smith (D-New York) won just 87 Electoral College vote.
Hoover’s landslide resulted from the prosperity and fun of the Roaring Twenties. Woodrow Wilson’s unpopular decision to take make America into World War I also assisted Hoover In 1928, many Americans blamed Democrats for an unpopular war.
Four years later, in 1932, America was a completely different place. The stock market had collapsed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression.
Many Americans blamed Big Business and capitalism for the nation’s problems. Voters knew Hoover as a champion of both. The attributes that attracted voters to Hoover in 1928 were liabilities in 1932.
Additionally, Hoover’s actions were unsuited to the situation. Relief efforts using private charities were inadequate. Hoover’s determination to enforce the unpopular Prohibition angered voters, a stiff drink was one of the few luxuries impoverished Americans could still afford and the President wanted to deprive people of that.
In addition, Hoover’s signature economic policy; the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, probably made the depression worse by destroy the market for American exports. That killed factory jobs and wiped out markets for American agricultural products.
To explain, Smoot Hawley increased 900 import tariffs by 40% to 50%. That led foreign governments to retaliate with high tariffs which killed international trade.
By 1932, Hoover was the most unpopular man in America, blamed for the Depression and its effects such as the Bonus March. Hoover won just 59 Electoral College votes and carried only five states in 1932. His opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) won 472 Electoral College votes and carried 43 of the 48 states.
Herbert Hoover spent the next 32 years of life in restless activity. Hoover traveled the world, wrote many articles and books, and remained an influence in the Republican Party. However, Hoover never found another role except as grumpy ex-president. Presidents Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) appointed Hoover to advisory commissions, then ignored.
Hoover exemplifies the problems presidential losers face. He was just popular enough to be a nuisance, but lacking any real influence. Hoover died at the Waldorf Astoria in Hotel New York City in 1964.
George H. W. Bush
Similarly to Martin Van Buren (D-New York), George H. W. Bush (R-Texas) was the heir to a popular president. In Bush’s case, it was Ronald Reagan (R-California).
As with Van Buren, voters began reassessing many of the popular president’s policies and decided they didn’t like them after he left. In addition, Bush like Hoover saw the world change completely on his watch.
The Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union collapsed. However, voters credited Reagan not Bush for the Cold War victory. In addition, Bush’s victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was popular but not grand enough to change voters’ minds.
Additionally, the end of Communism allowed many voters to reconsider voting for Democrats. The fear that a Democrat could be soft on Communism was no longer an issue because Communism itself was no longer an issue. Thus the draft-dodger Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) became a credible presidential candidate.
By 1992, voters had become tired of 12 years of Republican presidents. A lackluster economy and a new kind of Democrat (Clinton) made Bush the first presidential looser in 54 years.
George H. W. Bush retired gracefully and became a popular elder statesman and ex-president. Bush lived long enough to see his son George W. Bush (R-Texas) elected president twice. Bush was one of the few ex-presidents to embrace his role.
History shows that neither voters and public opinion are not kind to presidential losers who refuse to ride off into the sunset. I think Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) will have a tough time bucking those historical trends.