Sabato's Crystal Ball

Loser’s Lane: The Road to the White House

Larry J. Sabato, Isaac Wood and Kyle Kondik, U. Va. Center for Politics June 16th, 2011

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Presidents are the big winners in American politics, and so naturally we tend to think of them as blessed, preternaturally lucky and untouched by defeat. But it just isn’t so.

We decided to take a look back to see just how many of the 43 men who have held the nation’s highest office had lost one or more contests on the road to the White House. You may be as surprised as we were that 31 of 43 presidents had been defeated at least once.

Click here for a complete list. We did not count presidential primary defeats as long as the individual was nominated for president that year.

Remarkably, two presidents were defeated three times (William McKinley and George H.W. Bush); three others lost four times (Benjamin Harrison, as well as one of our best presidents, Abraham Lincoln; and one of our worst, James Buchanan); and one was defeated five times (William Henry Harrison)**

Of the 12 presidents who entered the White House with an undefeated electoral record, Gerald Ford is the most recent. Of course, he wasn’t elected president — or vice president, for that matter — and his victories consisted entirely of a string of U.S. House wins from 1948 to 1972 in his Grand Rapids, MI district. The last elected president who won every prior political contest was Woodrow Wilson. Of course, Wilson wasn’t a professional politician and had only run once before gaining the presidency, for governor of New Jersey in 1910. (Dwight Eisenhower isn’t included, since he never ran at all before his elevation to the White House.)

As incredible as it may seem, all but four presidents since 1900 (William Howard Taft, Wilson, Eisenhower and Ford) have been labeled a loser at least once. No doubt, some political analysts wrote off these future presidents on the occasions when they failed to get to the winner’s circle. No one with the image of a loser can be elected president, right?

By the way, 10 presidents had registered prior defeats for the presidency itself, either in primaries or the general election: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. If at first you don’t succeed…*

Three presidents had an undefeated record the easy way: They had never before run for public office, and all were generals (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Eisenhower).

So much for history. Do these findings have any application to the 2012 race for the presidency? Just last week, when Rick Santorum (R-PA) announced his campaign, Santorum’s landslide loss of his Senate seat in 2006 was emphasized. It was indeed an embarrassing repudiation, though probably no worse than some of the other pre-presidential reversals on our list.

How does Santorum’s thrashing compare to his rivals? It turns out that Santorum has lots of company. Of 13 current or possible Republican candidates, only Tim Pawlenty, Gary Johnson, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry have no losses. (We choose not to count Huntsman’s loss for senior class president, which led to a funk and his dropping out of high school and joining a band.)

Here are the others:

This is not to suggest that Santorum’s trouncing in a key swing state is not significant. It is just that losing is a widely experienced malady among presidential politicians.

America loves a winner, and candidates naturally try to deemphasize those demoralizing nights when the election party ended early. Still, let’s keep in mind that the agony of defeat has been endured by over 70% of our presidents on their road to the White House. No wonder top politicians never take victory for granted.

Have we missed any pre-presidential defeats for elective office? E-mail us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu. If you are correct, we will credit you next week in the Crystal Ball.

* (We tried to limit these to credible runs for the presidency; not included, for instance, is William McKinley’s 1892 “favorite son” candidacy for the presidency. Grover Cleveland, who lost his reelection bid in 1888 only to come back and win a second, non-consecutive term in 1892, also is excluded from this list because he hadn’t run for president prior to his 1884 victory.)

**(Post updated to include William Henry Harrison’s presidential loss in 1836 and Michele Bachmann’s school board loss in 1999)