More Presidential History
Chris provided a link to an excellent article on the worst Presidents in US history, with George W. Bush a definite candidate to make the list, possibly as the all time loser. Reading the article rekindled my interest in where our Presidents come from and what elective history they have.
For the last 30 years, starting with Jimmy Carter and excepting Bush the First, the Presidents have come from Governorships. The current Bush and Ronald Reagan never held any public office except Governor and President. Before their election as Governor, Carter had been a State Senator and Bill Clinton a State Attorney General. Reagan was 4 for 4 in elections, twice winning both Governor and President. The current Bush has the same record, but he also lost a race for the House in 1978, leaving him 4 for 5, with an asterisk for the 2000 election when his brother put him on steroids in Florida. Losing the Presidency in 1980 made Carter 3 for 4 in elections. Clinton ran for office 10 times, losing only his 1980 run for governor, leaving him at 9 for 10. Bush the First was a mediocre 5 for 8, winning election to the House and VP twice each and the Presidency once, but losing the Senate twice and the Presidency once - he was not a natural campaigner.
The four Presidents from 1960-1980 were all electoral winners. JFK and LBJ both went the same route, House to Senate to President, with LBJ making an additional stop as VP, and neither man was ever defeated in an election, Johnson winning 10 and Kennedy 7. Nixon followed the same course as LBJ, being VP twice. He had 2 losses in 9 elections, losing the Presidency in 1960 and then the California Governor's race two years later, after which he famously, and incorrectly, told the media they would not "have Nixon to kick around any more". Like Reagan, Nixon sat out of office a few years before being elected Presidentin 1968. Gerald Ford was an aberration, the only man to become President without ever having been elected either President or Vice President. Ford’s loss of the 1976 Presidential election was his only defeat after 12 wins to the House. No person has ever gone from the House to the Presidency, but Ford came close. After his short appointment from the House to VP when Agnew resigned in disgrace, Ford became President when Nixon resigned in disgrace. The Nixon-Agnew ticket holds an unbeatable record for resignations in disgrace.
Ford and LBJ are two of the 9 Presidents who rose from VP to President without election, 8 by death of the President and Ford by resignation. The record of these 9 men on seeking re-election is mixed: LBJ, Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt all won re-election; Millard Fillmore and Teddy Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully as third party candidates after several years out of office; Chester Arthur, Andrew Johnson, Fillmore and John Tyler could not secure the re-nomination by their party; Ford was the only one to go down in re-election defeat. A few years after narrowly defeating impeachment, Andrew Johnson was elected to the US Senate. Chester Arthur also has the distinction, along with William Harrison , of being the only Presidents who ran in just one election in their life, Arthur being elected VP in 1880 and Harrison President in 1840. Harrison died after one month in office.
The 2-0 record of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s marks the last time a war hero General was elected President. Ulysses Grant was 2-0 after the War of the Rebellion [aka Civil War]. “One month” Harrison was a General, as was Andrew Jackson, who was 2 for 3 in Presidential elections, and “pater noster” George Washington led off with a 2-0 record. Colin Powell might have had a chance to resume this tradition in 2000, and to set a new one as the first African-American President, but I suspect we may never see another General President and it will be along time before we see an African-American one. Nevertheless, Generalship may be the most likely route for an African-American to the Presidency.
Going back before the 1950s, we have Truman following the Senate to VP course and Franklin Roosevelt the Governorship route. Then we come to a unique President, Herbert Hoover. Hoover, whose only runs for office were his two tries for the Presidency, is the only person, other than a General, to be elected President without any prior electoral history. Though he had an excellent record of achievement before being elected, he was a failure as President, and I doubt any President in the future will be elected without having held prior elective office.
Three other early 20th Century Presidents, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley, came to the Presidency via Governorships. Harding was the only other President of that era who came through the Senate. William Taft, hand picked as his successor by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, was the only President whose prior electoral experience was limited to election to the local judiciary. He lost his Presidential re-election bid, making him 1-1 if we exclude his local judicial victory, but he later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, making him the only person in history to hold those two high offices.
Benjamin Harrison also lost half his elections, as Governor and President, while winning the senate and the Presidency each once. Grover Cleveland went from Governor to President but was 2-1 in Precedential elections, losing the middle one. James Garfield took the House to Senate to Presidency route, amassing an 11-0 record, only to end up assassinated. Rutherford Hayes went from House to Governor to President.
Abe Lincoln was 7-2 in elections and only won one Federal election, to the House in 1846, before being elected President in 1860. He lost his one bid for the Senate, his last election contest before running for President. But his performance in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in that Senatorial contest brought him national prominence and positioned him to win the next Presidential nomination for the fledgling Republican Party.
The 10th President, James Polk, was the first person to reach the Presidency from a governorship. Others before him took the Senatorial route after it became apparent that a Senate seat held more prestige than one in the House. Initially the House was thought more prestigious, and two Presidents, James Madison and John Quincy Adams went to the Presidency from the position of Secretary of State, after service in the House. Adams had prior Senate service but then served in the House, where the power was at that time, both before and after his Presidency.
Our second President, John Adams, may actually have the worst electoral record of all the Presidents, if you consider the fact that in those days the elected VP was the number two finisher in the Presidential race. Adams was elected President only 1 time in 4 tries.
The most likely course to the Presidency today is through a Governorship. A Senate seat may secure a nomination, but not likely an election win. An extremely popular General could have a remote chance, but a House member, Judge or person never elected to office has no chance.
Listing the Presidents by their electoral record shows election victories are not necessarily indicators of enduring respect, nor are defeats measures of lasting shame.
Presidents who never lost an election for office:
Lyndon Johnson (10-0)
Andrew Johnson (12-0)
William Harrison (1-0)
Presidents with one electoral defeat:
GW Bush (4-1)
FD Roosevelt (7-1)
JQ Adams (10-1)
Presidents with more than one electoral defeat:
GHW Bush (5-3)
T Roosevelt (4-2)
B Harrison (2-2)
Van Buren (5-2)
J Adams (1-3)