Q. Has a President ever returned to office after losing re-election?
A Yes, but only once.
President Grover Cleveland lost re-election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland beat Harrison four years later, making Cleveland both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. To date, Cleveland is the only President to serve non-consecutive terms. Cleveland actually won the popular vote both times but lost the Electoral College vote in 1888.
In an interesting parallel to our recent election, there were loud complaints about voter fraud in Cleveland’s loss to Harrison in 1888. There were accusations that some voters in Indiana were paid to vote for Harrison. However, from there the narratives diverged. Despite the allegations of fraud, President Cleveland and the Democratic Party conceded the results. In a letter to Harrison, Cleveland stated that he would do everything in his power to ease the way for the new president.
Indeed, not only did Cleveland attend the inauguration for President Harrison, but he also held an umbrella over the new president during the inaugural speech. While gracious in loss, Grover Cleveland was a President with some controversy. He had been criticized for fathering a child out of wedlock before running for President. He also freely used his veto pen, much to the distress of members of Congress and many business leaders. Nonetheless, Cleveland was popular enough that he may have served a third term but he declined to run for re-election a second time.
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Losing a Presidential race and running successfully later is not that uncommon. Thomas Jefferson lost in 1796 to John Adams, and then beat the sitting President four years later. Indeed, a number of US Presidents lost their first bids for the job. President Joe Biden lost in the primaries twice before winning in 2020. Like President Biden, President George HW Bush lost in the primaries before being chosen as vice president, and then winning the top job himself in a subsequent election. Vice presidents are often chosen from the party’s leading contenders for the presidential nomination, so it is unsurprising that many run for the high office later. However, their track record of success is more limited. While Biden and Bush won, other contenders like Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Dan Quayle did not.
It is harder to come back after winning the party nomination and losing the general election. It was more common in the first half of the 20th Century and earlier but it is less likely in modern politics. Adlai Stevenson was nominated twice and lost both elections, in 1952 and 1956. Thomas Dewey also was nominated twice in the 1940s and lost both times (though that second result was infamously and inaccurately reported in the Chicago Daily Tribune as a victory over Harry Truman) .
Perhaps these failures are the reason few get a second nomination but second-time nominees don’t always lose. Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination for President in 1960 and then lost to President John Kennedy. He won the nomination again in 1968 and went on to win and then win re-election before resigning as a result of the Watergate investigation.
Kevin Wagner is a noted constitutional scholar and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. The answers provided do not necessarily represent the views of the university. If you have a question about how American government and politics work, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter @kevinwagnerphd.