One-term Presidents who ran for re-election and lost.

Just a matter of passing interest.

In the era between WW2 and Trump, only two elected presidents have run for a second term and lost the general election:

In 1980, Jimmy Carter ran for a second term. Forty-four million Americans went to the polls to vote for his main oppponent (Reagan). In all, 51 million Americans voted against him.

In 1992, George Bush the Elder tried for a second term. Forty-five million Americans went to the polls to vote for his main oppponent (Clinton). In all, 65 million Americans voted against him.

In 2020, Donald Trump the Elder ran for a second term. Eighty million Americans went to the polls to vote for his main oppponent (Biden). In all, 83 million Americans voted against him.

The comparison is made more significant by the fact that Americans were not universally and specifically rejecting Carter and Bush, two decent men. Many Americans liked those two but nonetheless turned out to vote for charismatic opponents in elections complicated by substantial third-party voting. In the 2020 election … well, nobody thinks of Biden as Joey Charisma. Furthermore, down-ballot Republicans did fairly well. It’s obvious that the vast majority of those eighty million people who voted against Trump were casting votes specifically to reject Donald Trump.

It was the most resounding rejection of a president in modern history, and by a very large margin. Before this, no modern President trying to be re-elected for a second term had ever been replaced by an opponent receiving more than 45 million votes. Trump has been replaced by an opponent receiving 80 million votes.

In fairness, we should also note that no President running for re-election ever received as many votes as Donald Trump.

Voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential election was the highest it has been in 120 years! There were record numbers of votes for the president, and even more impressive record numbers of votes against him. Because Donald Trump is so loved and so hated, he has in a sense re-energized American democracy as much as he has polarized it. His very presence has made people on both sides more aware of the importance of the right to vote, and of the potential cost of not exercising that right. He has raised the stakes.

32 thoughts on “One-term Presidents who ran for re-election and lost.

    1. This election had the highest turn out in (I think it’s been reported) a century. That was either because Trump is such a polarizing figure many more people than usual were highly motivated to vote or the widespread availability of voting by mail made voting easier than ever before. I think it is probably a combination of those two things. That leads me to wonder a couple of things. Assuming there is no pandemic in 2024, will mail in voting continue to be widely available? Will Trump run again?

      I am very much hoping Trump doesn’t decide to attempt a Grover Cleveland. I suspect though that leaving a 2024 run as an option is part of the reason he is so loudly screaming about how the election was stolen from him. Hopefully, Republican primary voters won’t make the same mistake twice. Actually, if he does run, I hope that what happened in 2016 convinces the rest of the field to winnow itself down early. Trump would probably have never won the nomination if there hadn’t been so many candidates running. I don’t think Trump ever won the majority of votes in any primary. But if there are 16 other candidates on the ballot, 25% of the vote is enough. In 2016, I supported Marco Rubio and was hoping he would choose Nikki Haley as his running mate. In 2024, I think Nikki should give serious consideration to picking Rubio as her running mate. 4 years is a long tome in politics, but as of now I think she would be the strongest general election candidate for the GOP. But really almost any other Republican would be a stronger candidate than Trump. Maybe Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance would be doing the GOP a favor if he convicts Trump of something that will put him in prison. That wouldn’t be a good thing in terms of uniting the country, but it will make Trump supporters highly motivated to vote.

      1. I believe the turnout might be the highest ever when it is done on a like to like basis based on age. 100+ years ago only males could vote, but I don’t think that greatly effected turnout compared to today, but the legal voting age then was 21 where as it is 18 today, and 18-20 year olds are the lowest turnout age cohort.

        1. I don’t know about “ever.” Some of those turnouts in the slavery/reconstruction eras were astoundingly high. Cultural passions ran high then as well. Even if you were to count only male voters over 21 in 2020, I doubt that the percentage would beat out Lincoln’s first run in 1860 or Hayes-Tilden, but I guess it is a possibility.

          But I take your point. In the modern era, playing by today’s rules (voters of both genders, 18 and older), it was the highest by far. In fact, Donald Trump’s presence in 2016 made that election the highest to date with the modern rules, and this one absolutely crushed that one by some 25 million voters.

          So I support the idea of excluding pre-1972 elections from the comparison. It’s the same thing I do when I throw out pre-1893 baseball records for comparisons, simply because they were playing a different game.

          Pre-1972 elections, and especially pre-1920 elections were a different game.

          I had not realized it until just now, but both of those developments had an immediate negative impact on the % of participating voters.

          In the 1920 Presidential election, participation dropped to 49% from 62% in 1916. If men continued to vote at the 62% rate, then female participation must have been in the mid- 30s. I guess it took time to close the gap between eligibility and actual participation.

          Similarly, the turnout percentage dropped another 6 points in 1972 when 18-year-olds were able to vote. If you think about that, it makes no sense. Tricky Dick had just asked for an extension of the draft in the Vietnam era. You would think all of those potential draftees 18-21 would have flocked to the polls for McGovern. Similarly, you’d think the whole Nixon/McGovern race, being fraught with cultural passion, would have brought in more voters than Nixon/Humphrey, but there apparently was no enthusiasm for McGovern at all. (I guess the fact that he lost 49 states might have been a clue.)

          1. I was a youngster in the ’70s, not old enough to vote or other “adult” activities, but old enough to know what was going on. The 18- & 19-year olds I knew had these priorities: getting drunk, getting stoned, getting laid, and getting welfare. You had a better chance of convincing farm animals to vote.

          2. Not exactly. The first priority was always, “Don’t go to Vietnam,” followed by your list. The reason for that priority is that one could not get drunk, stoned or laid while dead.

          3. Vietnamization – i.e., “You guys do the fighting for a change” might have been a factor. Of course by that time, I’d been in and gotten out, getting no closer to the Nam than the south side of Seoul.
            My vote was actually up for grabs in 72. I was Clean for Gene in Indiana (Muncie – home of Ball State) in 68 and generally did not care for Pres. Not A Crook.
            But that Come Home America stuff (the dodgers in Canada) turned me off more. So I mailed my vote for Pres. Indeed A Crook back to Ohio.

  1. When the Stones first went on either Shindig , it was on the condition they could bring along a guest. The guest was the Wolf. 16-year old me was awe and struck. The clip is on You Tube.

  2. Or to slightly reword Muddy Waters, you can’t rewin what you ain’t never won.
    Fun fact: The two greatest Chicago bluesmen ever were named for Republican Presidents.
    McKinley Morganfield (Muddy) and Chester Arthur Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf).

    1. Roosevelt Sykes was too old to be named after Franklin, so he must have been named for Teddy, and he was big in the Chicago blues scene in the 40s and early 50s.

      To your point, however, he wasn’t in the same league as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, so I guess they would have to be the top two.

  3. Gerald Ford was also a sitting president that lost re-election in the post-war period; ironically to Jimmy Carter.

    1. Well, this is what Scoopy wrote: In the era since WW2, only two previous presidents have run for a second term and lost the general election.

      Gerald Ford of course did not run for Presidential election in 1972.

      It’s not really ironic. Given all that had happened with the Presidency from 1960-1980 there was a lot of discussion, scholarly discussion anyway, of amending the Constitution to do away with the office of the Presidency in some way as the sentiment was the job was just too big for one person.

      There likely were proposals to go to a Parliamentary system and there was also discussions to go to the Swiss model which uses a revolving Presidential system based on their Federal Assembly.

      For good or ill, the strong Presidency of Ronald Reagan put an end to those discussions.

    2. Interesting fact, Gerald Ford is the only President of the United States, so far, that wasn’t nominated and elected to the office.

    3. Ford was not running to be RE-elected. He had never been previously elected. (Not even to the vice-presidency.)

  4. Cripes Adam you never get tired of that Frum quote do you? Well this conservative (admittedly a pre-Tea Party, pre-Trump mode conservative) isn’t about to. Of course the POCs (Party over Country) types who have misappropriated the label will go autocracy faster than you can say “Hail Trump”.

    1. My problem with that Frum quote is how true it is today, which is appalling. The right wing is whipping itself into a frenzy about this election. The danger of that may not be now, but in the future. It may become their “we were stabbed in the back” battle cry.

      1. Precisely my fear.
        The “Stab in the Back” myth did major harm to the Weimar Rep.
        And that is pretty much the sort of delegitimizing myth Trump is trying to establish.

  5. The Supreme Court recently reassigned Circuit Court (which cover certain states) assignments. Clarence Thomas is in charge of Georgia, Samuel Alito has Pennsylvania, Brett Kavanagh has Michigan, and Amy Coney Barrett has Wisconsin.

    If Donald Trump gets his case to SCOTUS, he a good change of prevailing 5-4 or 6-3.

    1. So, you are calling for a coup.

      “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy.”
      David Frum

    2. Not calling for, I don’t think, just pointing out the possibility. And there’s that word “if”. Sure there was no blue wave, but it’s not like there’s even a figleaf pretext to put this in font of SCOTUS

        1. Yeah, but that was one state and there was actual evidence that enough votes were in question to flip Florida.
          This time, no – it’s just a bunch of whining and crying. Heartfelt, sure, but doesn’t hold up in court. Even supposing they could kick up enough dirt (because we’re pretending that the actual dirt existed) in one state, that wouldn’t change the voters’ decision.
          It’s actually likelier that they flip it using a faithless elector scenario.

          1. I wouldn’t even give any of the perps credit for heartfelt. Pure pre-telegraphed fabrications. TG Trump is stupid, incompetent, and has surrounded himself with 23-rd raters.
            And Sidney Powell? I always thought Lyndon LaRouche was the ruler of all whackjobs. But she’s coming up fast.
            She lives in an alternate universe where dead dictators preside over the algorithming of all those poor unsuspecting Trump voters.

            “”This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you’re on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable…Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop….The Twilight Zone.”

        2. There are significant differences between the situation today and the situation in Florida that led to the Bush v Gore decision. First, it involved only one state. Second, the candidate the conservative wing would have preferred was leading. Finally, the legal reasoning in Bush v. Gore was at the very least plausible. As I recall the majority reasoning was 1. Election law cannot be changed after the election and applied retroactively. 2. State law said that the winner had to be certified by a certain date so as to take advantage of some provision of federal law. 3. Therefore the deadline to certify could not be extended beyond that date so recounts had to stop. Now I can’t say for certain if the conservative justices would have ruled the same way if Al Gore had been ahead by 500 votes. But there is a long way between saying the conservative justices allowed personal biases to tilt the scales in a case with no precedents to saying that they would completely disregard the law and the Constitution to steal a second term for Trump. Chief Justice Roberts did backflips to avoid declaring Obama Care unconstitutional because (it is nearly universally assumed) he was concerned about what declaring it unconstitutional would do to the Court’s reputation. Does it make sense he would go along with stealing the election in such an obvious way? To be honest, if I had to guess, I’d say more than one conservative justice probably voted against Trump. I say that because the “Never Trumpers” seem to be largely made up of highly educated conservatives dedicated to the rule of law.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion is… disagreed with strenuously, shall we say. That’s fine. But I would hope that apologies will be made on January 20th after Biden is sworn in. I promise to apologize on January 21st if Trump is still president.

          1. Sandra let the cat out of the bag after GWG was inaugurated. There was a news article, don’t remember which publication, that she was quoted as saying she wanted a Republican president to replace her.

            Don’t think for a minute that Supreme Court Justice’s decisions aren’t influenced by their political biases.

          2. I think I remember the report you are talking about. As I recall, Sandra Day O’Connor was at some kind of gathering/dinner party on election night in 2000. When the networks called Florida (and thus the election) for Al Gore she was visibly upset. She may have said she would now have to remain on the Court 4 more years or that may have just been a supposition from whatever “friend” talked to a reporter. The Justice’s husband was quite sick at the time and it was known she wanted to retire to take care of him. That is one of the reasons I said I couldn’t say Bush v Gore would have come out the same way if Al Gore had been leading Florida.

            But as I said, the reasoning given by the majority was plausible. At most, the Justices’ biases needed to only tilt the decision a small amount. But to somehow come up with a way to give Trump a second term would require what could only be seen as a judicial coup. That would be one way to ensure a Court packing plan would be enacted in 2025. Honestly, even if Trump’s lawyers were to come forward with actual evidence, even compelling evidence of voter fraud in multiple states, I am not sure what Trump’s relief would be. Unless there was some way to determine by a preponderance of the evidence how many votes to award Trump or deduct from Biden, I don’t see how Trump could win. In the past, some courts have ordered new elections when they find voter fraud. But I doubt that would be practical given the time constraints. Just to be clear , I don’t believe there was widespread fraud. If Trump’s lawyers had evidence we’d have heard about it by now, not just heard his lawyers say there was evidence they couldn’t disclose. The real problem is that the more Trump screams the election was stolen, the more his most rabid supporters will believe it. I don’t see anything good coming from that.

    1. I agree, but you can’t ask Trump to not to be Trump. If he was different, he would not be where he is.

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