Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > It's 2020. Here's Six Facts About the History of Presidents Running for Reelection.

Jan 30, 2020

It's 2020. Here's Six Facts About the History of Presidents Running for Reelection.

tags: presidential history,2020 Election

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

As the presidential election year of 2020 begins, many news outlets will discuss the history of past presidential elections and attempt to find parallels between the past and present. Here are six interesting facts about past elections.

1. 63% of Sitting Presidents Running for Reelection Won

17 Presidents sought reelection and were rewarded with a second term: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland (but non consecutive terms), William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt (4 terms), Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

The following 10 Presidents sought reelection and lost: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland (but won the next term), Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford after finishing Richard Nixon’s second term, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush

Historically, 17 out of 27—63 percent—of presidents who ran for reelection won. 

2. Five Presidents Couldn’t Seek Reelection Because They Died in Office

What about those who never ran for reelection? Five presidents (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James A. Garfield, Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy) all died in office in their first term, so were unable to run for reelection.

3. Three Presidents Ran for a Third Term

Since the 22nd Amendment was not ratified until 1951, more presidents than just Franklin D. Roosevelt could have run for a third term. In fact, Ulysses S. Grant attempted a failed comeback in the 1880 Republican convention after four years out of office.  Theodore Roosevelt, after declining to run for a second full term after succeeding the assassinated William McKinley, came back and ran for President with the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912. Both failed to be President for another term. FDR began a fourth term in 1945, but soon was succeeded by Harry Truman upon his death.

4. Three Presidents Ran for Reelection With a Third Party

In addition to Teddy Roosevelt, two other presidents ran as third-party candidates. Martin Van Buren ran for president with the Free Soil Party in 1848. After losing the Whig nomination in 1852, Millard Fillmore ran for president as the American (Know Nothing) Party’s candidate in 1856. Both campaigns impacted the results. Van Buren harmed fellow Democrat Lewis Cass in New York, helping to elect Zachary Taylor. Fillmore managed only to win the state of Maryland, but won 21.5 percent of the national vote. A shift of a few thousand votes to Fillmore in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky, however, would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives at a very tumultuous time, and could have led to the defeat of Democrat James Buchanan and the election of John C. Fremont. Fremont would have been the first Republican President, instead of Abraham Lincoln four years later in 1860.

5. Five Presidents Were Unable To Secure Their Party’s Nomination for a Second Term 

Four former vice presidents who became president after the death of their predecessor were denied the opportunity for another term. Such was the case for Presidents John Tyler (1844), Millard Fillmore (1852), Andrew Johnson (1868), and Chester Alan Arthur (1884).  Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson, and Arthur had no public or party support, and all four had alienated party leaders by their policies and utterances. However, Fillmore ran with  a third party line, as outlined above, in 1856. In the case of Arthur, the fact that he was bypassed by the Republican Party in 1884 was a lucky event, as he died twenty and a half months after his term ended.  

Franklin Pierce was simply too unpopular after the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 led to the split in the Democratic Party, the destruction of the Whig Party, and the creation of the Republican Party. The party passed on him for nomination for another term in 1856.

6. Five Presidents Chose Not to Run for Reelection

James K. Polk chose not to run for reelection in 1848. Polk made it clear early in his presidency he would not run for reelection. Polk was a very hard working President who hardly ever slept which may have contributed to his health issues that were present throughout his term. He died 105 days after leaving office in 1849, the shortest retirement of any President who completed his time in office.

James Buchanan also decided he would not seek reelection after his tumultuous and divisive term (1857-1861) on the eve of the Civil War. In the 1860 election, the Democratic Party split in half, and Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge and the mainstream Democratic Party nominated Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who had split with Buchanan during his term of office.

Rutherford B. Hayes, contentiously elected in 1876 after he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by a quarter of a million votes, did not seek reelection in 1880. The Republican Party opposed his fight to change the corrupt spoils system, and his wife Lucy Hayes, an anti-liquor feminist, alienated many, so Hayes chose not to run again. 

Calvin Coolidge chose not to run in 1928, likely because of the effects of his younger son’s tragic death on his psyche.  His personality changed from gregarious to “Silent Cal” during the summer of 1924 when his son passed away.  Although he was already nominated for a full term after succeeding Warren G. Harding, Coolidge decided to pass on a second full term nomination..

Lyndon B. Johnson had announced his candidacy for a second full term, but party division over the Vietnam War led to his withdrawal in March 1968. 

Most of those who decided not to run for reelection were in office at very tumultuous times:  party divisions over slavery in the case of Polk and Buchanan, the end of Reconstruction and the growth of widespread political corruption inAmerica in the case of Hayes, and the Vietnam War in the case of Lyndon Johnson.

Now, Donald Trump enters the 2020 Presidential Election as an impeached President. While the odds historically may favor an incumbent’s reelection, only time will tell. 

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