The World’s Most Powerful Losers

 /  Sept. 24, 2017, 1:47 p.m.


Barack Obama. Ronald Reagan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What do these men have in common?

They’re all losers.

As Julia Azari of FiveThirtyEight writes, “[T]he modern presidency is big, designed to deal with the challenges of an expansive federal government and an interconnected world.” Presidents of the last and current centuries have governed through world wars, economic crisis, and cultural revolution after cultural revolution. And, for over a hundred years, many have been losers.

Barack Obama lost a primary for Illinois’s 1st Congressional District to Rep. Bobby Rush by a 2:1 margin in 2000. Ronald Reagan lost Republican presidential nominating contest twice before securing it in 1980. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected to the presidency four times, had been James Cox’s running-mate on the losing 1920 Democratic ticket.

The most recent elected president with a competitive, undefeated electoral history was Woodrow Wilson, who defeated former president Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive) and incumbent president William Howard Taft (R) 42-27-23 in the 1912 election. Wilson, the former President of Princeton University, had only run for and held one office before being elected to the presidency: he was elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910, defeating State Commissioner of Banking and Finance 54-43.

Wilson, however, is often considered an accidental president; both Roosevelt and Taft were popular enough to win had the other sat the race out. To find a president with an unblemished electoral record and over fifty percent of the national vote, one must look back to 1852, when Franklin Pierce, a former Senator and speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, was elected. Though James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield all carried undefeated records to the White House after Pierce, none of the three won a majority of the national popular vote. Pierce, it should be noted, holds the title of third worst President in C-SPAN’s annual presidential ranking.

The trend of losers running for president does not stop with winning candidates. Mitt Romney campaigns for Senate in 1994 and the presidency in 2008, Jimmy Carter lost a 1966 run for Governor. The most recent politician to go undefeated until his presidential run was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who was infamously trounced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, winning only six states and 39 percent of the vote. Goldwater was first elected to the Phoenix City Council in 1949. In 1952, he staged a two-point upset of Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland (D-AZ), 51-49 percent. Goldwater held this seat until his losing 1964 presidential bid, took some time off, and won Arizona’s other Senate seat in 1968. He remained in Congress until 1986 and was replaced by Senator John McCain.

Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, old or young, women or (mainly) men, presidential candidates are one- or many-time losers who did not let a failure define them. They knew that one, two, or even more setbacks would not stop them from making their voices heard.

The Losses:

Candidate: Hillary Clinton (D), 2016

Loss (Margin): 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary (2,158.5-1920, delegates)

Victor(s): Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)


Candidate: Mitt Romney (R), 2012

Loss (Margin): 1994 Massachusetts Senate (58-41); 2008 Republican Presidential primary (3rd)

Victor(s): Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA); Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)


Candidate: Barack Obama (D), 2008, 2012

Loss (Margin): 2000 Illinois’s First Congressional District Democratic primary(60-30)

Victor(s): Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL)


Candidate: John McCain (R), 2008

Loss (Margin): 2000 Republican Presidential primary (1526-275, delegates)

Victor(s): Gov. George W. Bush (R-TX)


Candidate: John Kerry (D), 2004

Loss (Margin): 1972 Massachusetts’s Fifth Congressional District (54-45)

Victor(s): State Rep. Paul Cronin (R)

(Rep. Cronin was defeated in 1974 by Paul Tsongas)


Candidate: Al Gore (D), 2000

Loss (Margin): 1988 Democratic Presidential primary (3rd)

Victor(s): Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA)


Candidate: George W. Bush (R), 2000, 2004

Loss (Margin): 1978 Texas’s Nineteenth Congressional District (53-47)

Victor(s): Rep. Kent Hance (D)

(Rep. Hance became a Republican in 1985)


Candidate: Bob Dole (R), 1996

Loss (Margin): 1976 Presidential election, vice presidential nominee (50-48)

Victor(s): Gov. Jimmy Carter (D-GA) and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN)


Candidate: Bill Clinton (D), 1992, 1996

Loss (Margin): 1974 Arkansas’s 3rd Congressional District (52-48)

Victor(s): Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R)


Candidate: George H.W. Bush (R), 1988, 1992

Loss (Margin): 1964 Texas Senate (62-38); 1970 Texas Senate (53-47); 1980 Republican Presidential primary (60-24)

Victor(s): Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D); Rep. Lloyd Bentsen (D); Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA)

(Bush defeated Bentsen in 1988 when the Texas Senator was Dukakis’s running-mate)


Candidate: Walter Mondale (D), 1984

Loss (Margin): 1980 Presidential election, vice presidential nominee (51-41)

Victor(s): Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) and Rep. George H.W. Bush (R-TX)


Candidate: Ronald Reagan (R), 1980, 1984

Loss (Margin): 1968 Republican Presidential primary (3rd); 1976 Republican Presidential primary (53-46)

Victor(s): Vice President Richard Nixon (R), President Gerald Ford (R)


Candidate: Jimmy Carter (D), 1976, 1980

Loss (Margin): 1966 Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial primary (3rd)

Victor(s): Lester Maddox (D)

(When Carter was elected Governor in 1970, Maddox served as his Lieutenant Governor)


Candidate: George McGovern (D), 1972

Loss (Margin): 1960 South Dakota Senate (53-57)

Victor(s): Sen. Karl Mundt (R)


Candidate: Hubert Humphrey (D), 1968

Loss (Margin): 1943 Minneapolis, MN Mayor (52-48); 1960 Democratic Presidential primary (6th)

Victor(s): Mayor Marvin L. Kline (R); Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-MA)

(Humphrey defeated Mayor Kline in their 1945 rematch)


Candidate: Richard Nixon (R), 1968, 1972

Loss (Margin): 1960 Presidential election (49.7-49.6); 1962 California Gubernatorial (52-47)

Victor(s): Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-MA); Gov. Pat Brown (D)

(Nixon told the California press in his 1962 concession speech, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”)


Candidate: Lyndon B. Johnson (D), 1964

Loss (Margin): 1941 Texas Senate special (30.5-30.3); 1960 Democratic Presidential primary (806-409, delegates)

Victor(s): Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel (D), Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-MA)


Candidate: John F. Kennedy (D), 1960

Loss (Margin): 1956 Democratic Vice Presidential nomination (755.5-589, delegates)

Victor(s): Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN)


Candidate: Harry Truman (D), 1948

Loss (Margin): 1924 County Court judge of Jackson County’s Eastern District (unknown)

Victor(s): Either H.W. Rummell or Daniel G. Stewart


Candidate: Franklin D. Roosevelt (D), 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944

Loss (Margin): 1920 Presidential election, vice presidential nominee (60-34)

Victor(s): Warren G. Harding (R-OH) and Calvin Coolidge (R-MA)


Candidate: Calvin Coolidge (R), 1924

Loss (Margin): 1904 Northampton School Board election (unknown)

Victor(s): Unknown


Candidate: Warren G. Harding (R), 1920

Loss (Margin): 1910 Ohio Gubernatorial election (59-41)

Victor(s): Gov. Judson Harmon (R)

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a third-year Political Science major interested in domestic policy and economic theory. This summer, he was an intern for Senator Richard Blumenthal in Washington, D.C. On campus, he is a member of varsity crew and the UC Democrats. He also sits on the Executive Board of College Democrats of Illinois. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with friends.


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