Seven Ex-Presidents Who Tried to Reclaim the Office since 1840
Only one, Grover Cleveland, was successful.
By Dr. Ronald L. Feinman
Adjunct Professor of History
Florida Atlantic University
A year after the election of 2020, Donald Trump flirts with the idea of running for president, claiming that the election was “stolen” by President Joe Biden. Trump has refused for the past year to do what every contender for the presidency who has lost has done: accept defeat graciously. Instead, Trump has promoted what is called “The Big Lie.” Despite the participation of two Republicans, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, on the House committee investigating January 6, most Republicans in Congress and in Republican states have been unwilling to criticize or challenge him. This includes Kevin McCarthy of California, who stands to become the Speaker of the House if the Republicans were to gain control of Congress in the midterm elections a year from now.
If he ends up running, Trump would be the 8th former president to attempt to return to the office. Only one, Grover Cleveland, was successful. Three others—Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and Theodore Roosevelt—-ran as third party candidates. Three others—Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Gerald Ford— attempted to run after leaving the Presidency, but failed to accomplish that goal.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) served one term in the White House as successor to Andrew Jackson, but the Panic of 1837 doomed his Presidency, partly because Jackson’s destruction of the Second National Bank exacerbated the depression. Van Buren was unable to repudiate what his predecessor had done, since he had been vice president under Jackson in his second term. As a result, Van Buren lost by a landslide in the Electoral College to William Henry Harrison in 1840.
Four years later, Van Buren sought the Democratic Party’s nomination once again. This time, the debate and controversy over the Texas Treaty promoted by President John Tyler forced Van Buren to take a stand on the subject of slavery expansion. The issue of Manifest Destiny gripped the nation, and prevented Van Buren, who was the frontrunner at the Democratic National Convention, from being able to gain the two thirds majority required for nomination, as he came out against the Texas Treaty. So instead, James K. Polk, former Speaker of the House, an ardent supporter of the Texas Treaty and Manifest Destiny, became the dark horse nominee of the Democratic Party, and surprised many by his victory for the Presidency over the better-known Whig, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.
But Van Buren was not stymied by his defeat. After the Mexican War ended in early 1848, and the ensuing debate over the expansion of slavery shaped the 1848 presidential campaign, Van Buren formed the Free Soil Party with others who opposed the expansion of slavery. This third party, backed by abolitionists, northern “Conscience” Whigs, and northern “Barnburner” Democrats, nominated Van Buren for president, and Charles Francis Adams, a Whig Party member and son of former President John Quincy Adams, for vice president. They won more than 290,000 votes, about 10 percent of the national popular vote. The fact that Van Buren was from New York, the state with the most electoral votes, helped Whig Zachary Taylor to win the election over Democratic presidential nominee Lewis Cass. Van Buren split the normally Democratic state vote of his party, actually ending up having about 6,000 votes more than Cass.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) served two years and eight months as the successor to Zachary Taylor, who died in office on July 9, 1850. Fillmore is most remembered for having signed the Compromise of 1850, which Taylor seemed ready to veto. While there was much controversy over the legislation, and the Fugitive Slave Law included in the legislation, advocates argued it delayed the Civil War by a decade. Fillmore also made the decision to promote the opening of Japan to the Western world, arranging for Commodore Matthew Perry to take a naval voyage to that nation, with the intention of using force if there was resistance by the Japanese shogun to start diplomatic and economic relations. However, by the time Perry arrived, Franklin Pierce had succeeded Fillmore as president.
General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War, defeated Fillmore for the 1852 nomination. In 1856, Fillmore was nominated by a third party, as Van Buren had been, but on a very different set of issues opposing slavery’s expansion. The former president was the nominee of the anti-Catholic and nativist American Party, known colloquially as the “Know Nothings.” But Fillmore, who was out of the country at the time of the convention of the party, did not support the main platform of the party, nor was he a nativist or even a member of the party. His celebrity as a former president gained him the nomination, but Fillmore never campaigned on the prejudicial issues the party set forth. Rather, he campaigned for national unity in a time of the struggles over slavery, most notably the miniature civil war of “Bleeding Kansas.”
Fillmore won a surprising 21.5 percent of the national popular vote, and took the 8 electoral votes of Maryland, beating Democrat James Buchanan by about 8,000 votes in that state. His popular vote was about 873,000, and he became the first of two former presidents, along with Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, to win electoral votes.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) served two full terms as president, and is remembered as a great Civil War General. In his two terms, he advocated for Reconstruction and African American civil rights, but was undermined by widespread political corruption in Congress and among his appointees, and the Panic of 1873 that lingered on beyond the Grant Presidency. When the dispute over the contested presidential election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden seemed to have the potential for violence, Grant considered staying on for a brief period if needed, but the dispute was resolved by the Compromise of 1877, which placed Hayes in the White House.
Hayes announced he would not run for reelection in 1880, and Grant decided to make a comeback attempt at that year’s Republican convention. Grant had a great desire to return to the White House, and was backed by the “Stalwart” faction of the Republican Party, in competition with the “Half Breed” faction for power and patronage. His biggest supporter was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, and his leading opponent was Maine Congressman James G. Blaine, who had been the Speaker of the House during the first six of Grant’s years in the White House.
Grant led on the first ballot, only 75 votes short of the number needed, but the Republican convention turned out to be the longest in the party’s history, requiring 36 roll calls of the states before James A. Garfield, a supporter of Blaine, was nominated. There had been substantial opposition to the concept of a third term, and Grant personally had expressed growing doubts as tensions grew in the convention hall and balloting continued, until a dark horse, Garfield, finally won the nomination. The fact that Grant was very consistent in delegate votes throughout the long balloting was impressive, but he never was able to gain more than a few additional delegates, and fell short by 62 delegates on the 35th ballot, before Garfield surged to victory.
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) (1893-1897) is the only president to win, then lose, and then regain the presidency. In an era of Republican dominance, the conservative Cleveland was the only Democratic president between James Buchanan before the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson in 1913. He is best remembered for supporting the Interstate Commerce Act (1887), supporting a lower protective tariff that only came about in his second term, demonstrating white supremacist views toward African Americans, native Americans, and Asian Americans, intervening in the suppression of the Pullman Strike of 1894 in his second term, and opposing the western free silver crusade headed by William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Cleveland also appointed four Supreme Court Justices in his two terms, and utilized the veto power more times than any president, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Cleveland was also an anti imperialist, refusing to annex Hawaii when Benjamin Harrison tried to arrange a treaty as he left office in 1893, refusing to intervene directly in the Cuban war against their Spanish masters in 1895, and opposing the Spanish American War and American intervention in the Filipino Insurrection under his successor, William McKinley.
Cleveland had barely won in 1884 against James G. Blaine, and in 1888, he won the national popular vote by about 90,000, but lost in the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison. As he left office, First Lady Frances Cleveland proclaimed that her husband would be returning to the White House in four years. Indeed, in 1892 Cleveland easily defeated Harrison and came back for another four year term. He is the only president, other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won four elections, to win the popular vote three times. His greatest victory in popular and electoral votes was gained in his third campaign for the presidency.
Eight years after leaving office, Cleveland toyed with the idea of trying once again, but realizing the great popularity of Theodore Roosevelt, he declined to announce in what seemed clearly a losing year for Democrats. Instead, Alton B. Parker suffered the worst defeat to date of any presidential candidate in the 1904 election.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) served seven-and-a-half years as president, finishing the term of the assassinated William McKinley and then winning a massive victory in 1904. His mistake was indicating on that election night that he would not run again in 1908. Unwilling to go back on his pledge, he backed Secretary of War William Howard Taft to be his successor. Within a bit more than a year, he became very disenchanted with Taft, who was alienating the progressive wing of the Republican Party in Congress. Finally, he decided to challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912, and was able to win most of the delegates in the dozen states that had presidential primaries that year, but was unable to prevent the incumbent Taft from winning the nomination for reelection.
Roosevelt had established himself as a progressive and made the term fashionable, promoting use of the Sherman Antitrust Act against corporations, supporting labor rights, becoming the most active and committed environmental president in American history, advocating pure food and drug regulation, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his activities in negotiating the peace treaty in the Russo-Japanese War, promoting the building of the Panama Canal, and becoming aggressive in his policies toward Latin America with the “Big Stick” policy and Roosevelt Corollary.
Now, Roosevelt decided to form a third party, the Progressive Party, also known by its “Bull Moose” symbol, and run a vigorous third party campaign against Taft in 1912, as an alternative to Democrat presidential nominee Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt launched a national campaign, promoting the “New Nationalism,” a more advanced platform of ideas than anyone before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” He was seen as a serious third party candidate, with some potential to stage an upset victory. The attempted assassination of Roosevelt in Milwaukee (covered in Chapter 5 of my presidential assassinations book) forced the suspension of his campaign, but boosted his heroic image. He had been an extremely popular president, and he would become the only third party nominee to end up second, ahead of the Republican Taft. He also won the all time highs for a third party candidate of 6 states, 88 electoral votes, and 27.5 percent of the national popular vote, receiving a total of 4.1 million votes.
Roosevelt was interested in running in 1916, but Republican leaders were still furious over his break with the party in 1912, and while the Progressive Party remained viable, he turned down their nomination and supported Charles Evan Hughes. Even as World War I ended, there were rumors spreading that Roosevelt would contest the presidency in 1920, but he died at the young age of 60 on January 6, 1919. Many have felt that he would have had a good chance to win the 1920 election, which was ultimately taken by Warren G. Harding. Roosevelt was always in the competition right up until his demise.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) served as president during the Great Depression, difficult times exceeded only by Lincoln’s presiding over the Civil War. He seemed unable to figure out what should be done to overcome the worst economic downturn in American history. Hoover had had a very impressive career as an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Calvin Coolidge. But his inability to turn the nation around doomed him in his reelection campaign against Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, resulting in a massive defeat; Hoover won only six states in the Electoral College.
Hoover wished to restore his reputation, and made sure the Republican Party knew he wished to run against FDR again in both 1936 and 1940, but he did not announce his candidacy or run an active campaign either time, hoping instead to be drafted by the party, but instead Kansas Governor Alfred Landon in 1936 and businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940 were the Republican nominees. But Hoover was incessant in his denunciations of FDR, who had once been a close friend and had even suggested in 1920 that the Democrats nominate Hoover for president.
So there was bad blood between Hoover and his successor. Hoover refused to chat with FDR on the way to the 1933 inauguration, and FDR refused to have any contact with Hoover during the more than 12 years of his presidency. Only when Harry Truman became president was Hoover invited back to the White House to head the Hoover Commission to reorganize the federal government bureaucracy.
Finally, Gerald Ford (1974-1977), who finished the term of Richard Nixon when he resigned in August 1974 and undermined his chances for election to his own term by pardoning Nixon a month later, considered running for president in 1980. He considered his opponent in the 1976 presidential primaries, Ronald Reagan, to be far too conservative for the electoral prospects of the party. But he ended up deciding not to run, although Reagan did consider Ford to be his vice presidential nominee; had Ford accepted, it would have been the first time that a president would agree to serve as vice president after being the president.
But negotiations on the role that Ford would have as vice president broke down, as Ford wanted a co-presidency, which Reagan rejected. Ford ended up supporting Reagan as the party nominee against President Jimmy Carter, but Ford, being a moderate, was not truly comfortable with Reagan. Ironically, although Ford had lost to Carter in 1976, once Carter left the presidency, a genuine friendship developed between them, unlike any such example since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Carter gave the eulogy at Ford’s funeral in 2006.
In the next year’s time, it will likely become clear whether Donald Trump becomes the 8th former president to seek a return to the Oval Office, and whether he follows the trend of failure in such efforts.
Originally published by History News Network, 12.05.2021, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.