Much chatter amid even more controversy has met the news that Mitt Romney may be running again for president. Whether he should or shouldn’t, whether he will or won’t are questions to be answered over the next several months. But we don’t have to wait that long to ask how it has gone for second-time-around candidates. American history has recorded plenty. How have these “ghosts of elections past” fared?
Have most of them won or lost the second time? If they won, what kind of presidents were they? If they lost, what were the consequences for them and their party?
Since the early 19th century, eight candidates, after losing the presidency the first time, have received either a second major party nomination or were a majority party candidate. If you are keeping score at home, those nominated twice (or more) after first losing include Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1808), Andrew Jackson (1828), Henry Clay (1832), William Henry Harrison (1840), William Jennings Bryan (1900, ’08), Thomas Dewey (1948), Adlai Stevenson (1956) and Richard Nixon (1968).
Honorable mention has to go to Grover Cleveland, who earned a unique place in history, winning his first election (1884), losing his second (1888) and then returning four years later (1892) for another win.
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What can we say about the two-time nominees who went down swinging twice (or three times in the case of William Jennings Bryan and Henry Clay)? Certainly, each has a unique history.
The first, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was an important Revolutionary War figure as well as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. It was his fate to twice run for the presidency against two iconic founders of the nation, Thomas Jefferson (1804) followed by James Madison (1808).
Henry Clay ran and lost three times (1824, 1832, and 1844). Many historians consider him one of the ablest men to ever run for the presidency despite his failure to achieve it. He served as speaker of the House, secretary of state and U.S. senator. One of his strongest admirers was Abraham Lincoln, who fashioned much of his early political philosophy after Clay.
William Jennings Bryan, nominated three times (1896, 1900 and 1908), was possibly the greatest orator to run for president on a major party ticket. A pervasive presence in the Democratic Party during four decades, he ended his political career as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, breaking with the president over his war policies. Ironically, Bryan, despite his many accomplishments, may best be remembered as an anti-evolution activist after serving as counsel in the notorious “Scopes Monkey Trial” just prior to his death.
Thomas Dewey, moderate Republican, Eastern establishment figure and governor of New York for 12 years, came closest to defeating Franklin Roosevelt (1944) than anyone else, then lost a major upset to Harry Truman (1948). Dewey, a shrewd politician in private, but sometimes awkward in public, was famously ridiculed as looking like “the little man on the wedding cake.”
Adlai Stevenson served as governor of Illinois (1949) and was considered an eloquent speaker and intellectual politician he was nominated twice (1952 and 1956) losing both times to the popular war leader Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Widely respected in the Democratic Party, Stevenson launched a third campaign in 1960 only to lose the nomination to John Kennedy. He later served as Kennedy’s ambassador to the U.N. before his death in 1965.
Richard Nixon was one of the most controversial presidential candidates in American history. First nominated in 1960, he lost in a razor thin election to Kennedy. After Nixon’s Republican Party suffered massive rejection in 1964, Nixon was again nominated and won the presidency in 1968, becoming one of only three to win the second time around. His presidency was volatile, ending in his resignation during his second term. Many historians have had trouble ranking him, although he tends to be rated among the bottom quartile of all former presidents.
What does a brief survey reveal about the second time around? Earning a second nomination after losing a presidential bid is not that rare. It happened four times in the 20th century alone (Bryan, Dewey, Stevenson, and Nixon). Nor is it particularly a partisan pattern with two Republicans and two Democrats accomplishing it in the 20th century.
It is, however, not a particularly successful exercise, if by success you have in mind a four-year lease on the White House. Of the eight aforementioned double dippers, just three eventually won the presidency — Jackson, Harrison and Nixon. In Harrison’s case, eventually winning the presidency was about all he did. He had the shortest term in U.S. history, dying after 32 days in office, a term so short most historians don’t include him in rating surveys.
Nixon, of course, is infamously controversial, the first president to resign office and a lightning rod of contention even 40 year after his departure. Only Jackson stands as an example of someone nominated once and losing, then coming back for a successful (two-term) presidency.
And what does any of this forecast about Mitt Romney’s possible run? First it’s been a while since anyone did it — seven presidencies — and saturation media coverage has made it tougher for a failed nominee to try again. Second, achieving a second nomination does not assure electoral success. Ignoring Harrison’s abbreviated tenure, less than a third of the two-time nominees win the presidency.
Finally, if greatness or near greatness is your quest, you will want to find another way to do it. Of the eight double nominees, only Jackson is rated by historians as a great or near great president.
Romney will make his own decision whether to run for a second nomination. American presidential history offers him little encouragement to do so.