Jordan Cash is an Assistant Professor in the James Madison College at Michigan State University.
On November 15, 2022, only a week after the 2022 midterms, Donald Trump became the seventh president to seek election for a non-consecutive term. Because such comeback attempts are relatively rare—indeed, Trump is the first president to make such a bid in over sixty years—it is worth considering the political conditions under which other former presidents attempted to reenter the White House and why only one, Grover Cleveland, was ultimately successful. By looking for patterns and trends in other non-consecutive runs, we may be better able to see what obstacles Trump faces and assess the likelihood of him successfully pulling a Cleveland.
First, it is notable that most of the presidents attempting non-consecutive runs entered their respective races, like Trump, as the presumptive nominee, or at the very least maintained substantial influence over the party machinery. Yet with the exception of Cleveland, each of the former presidents who ran for their party’s nomination lost.
In 1844, Martin Van Buren commanded a majority of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, but his opposition to annexing Texas—the major issue of the campaign—prevented him from drawing Southern Democrats and annexation advocates. Eventually, the convention dismissed him in favor of Governor James K. Polk of Tennessee, who had initially attended the convention only hoping to be named Van Buren’s running-mate. But as a Southern Democrat who supported both Van Buren and annexation, he was amenable to the different party factions.
Ulysses S. Grant faced a similar problem in 1880. While the Hero of Appomattox differs from Van Buren and Trump in that he served two terms and left in deference to the two-term tradition set by George Washington, he had made enemies within his own party during his administration. Thus, rather than entering the race as a unifying figure, Grant was viewed as the leader of a faction. The factional conflict among the Republicans meant that despite leading the delegate-count throughout the convention, Grant could not achieve the necessary majority. As with Van Buren in 1844, the result was the emergence of a dark horse candidate, in this case, the obscure Ohio Representative James Garfield who effectively consolidated the anti-Grant forces and defeated the former president.
Herbert Hoover’s failed attempts in 1936 and 1940 may also serve as a warning to Trump. For even though Hoover maintained substantial influence over the Republican Party after being defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, after the Republicans lost seats in the 1934 midterms, it became increasingly unlikely that Hoover would have the support necessary to sustain a comeback campaign, and he failed to gain any traction in the Republican conventions.
These examples suggest that the most dangerous stage for presidential comebacks is the nomination stage. It also highlights that even while the Republican nomination is often described as Trump’s to lose, history is against him, and strategic missteps, party factionalism, lack of successful party leadership, or other factors may come together to deny the former president the nomination.
Of course, if Trump loses the Republican nomination, he may split and run as a third-party candidate. But even that option has historically been an electoral dead-end.
In 1848, Van Buren tried once more to re-enter the White House, and after being passed over by the Democrats again he and his followers organized with Whig opponents of slavery to form the new Free Soil Party. While the Free Soilers were the most successful third-party up to that time, with Van Buren winning 10.1 percent of the popular vote and even finishing second in New York, the end result was that Van Buren acted as a spoiler for the Democratic nominee Lewis Cass, allowing the Whig nominee Zachary Taylor to win the presidency.
The most famous third-party candidate in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, suffered a similar fate. Roosevelt entered the race for the Republican nomination with significant popular support, winning nine of the thirteen states holding primaries with a commanding lead in the popular vote. Yet when he was defeated at the convention by his former friend and protégé, incumbent President William Howard Taft, he broke off and formed the Progressive Party, whose iconic Bull Moose mascot has sometimes become confused with the party’s actual name. With both Roosevelt and Taft running in the general election against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, however, the outcome was predictable. Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote and enabled Wilson to win 40 states in the Electoral College with only 41.8 percent of the popular vote, the lowest winning percentage since 1860.
Van Buren and Roosevelt’s failures once again illustrate the dangers former presidents face at the nominating stage, as well as how running as a third-party does little more than split the vote and enable candidates who are farther removed from the president politically to win. Given our hyper-polarized politics, such a scenario would be extremely likely were Trump to lose the Republican nomination and run as a third-party candidate in 2024.
Notably, Millard Fillmore’s run as the nominee of the American Party—better known as the “Know Nothings”—also presents a warning against potential third-party runs. For while Fillmore did not suffer through losing a party nomination in 1856—primarily because his old party, the Whigs, had ceased to exist—his new party was relatively disorganized when compared to his Democratic and Republican rivals. Throughout the campaign it became abundantly clear that the nascent Republican Party was far better positioned to become the primary alternative to the Democrats. This was partially because the Republicans were focused on the defining issue of the time: slavery. The Know Nothings, by contrast, emphasized nativism as the main question of the day, with Fillmore declaring in 1855 that slavery was a “constant and distracting agitation.” The lack of experienced organization and inability to speak to the major national issue contributed to Fillmore finishing third in the election and the quick disintegration of the Know Nothings into an historical footnote. A disorganized Trump party, with a candidate focused on issues the public does not care about, such as rehashing the 2020 election, would likely end the same way.
Yet, it is true that the party selection system has changed drastically in the eight decades between Hoover and Trump. Now, primaries dictate who becomes the party nominee, and in a crowded Republican field a series of victories with a plurality of votes may be enough to win the delegates necessary to take the nomination. Indeed, this was Trump’s playbook in 2016, as he did not win a majority of Republican votes until most of the other candidates dropped out and it appeared that he had the nomination locked up. The weakness of the Republican Party as an institution and its lack of control over the nomination process is a major advantage Trump possesses that was not available to his predecessors who attempted similar comebacks.
At the same time, the Republican Party is factious, with significant and growing anti-Trump sentiment. A candidate who can present a clear alternative and unite the various factions, as Polk did in 1844, or simply unite the anti-Trump segments of the party, as Garfield did with anti-Grant factions in 1880, might be able to defeat the former president in the primaries.
Such a feat would, however, require the potential anti-Trump candidates to consolidate around one or two candidates. If the Republican field is as divided as it was in 2016, it seems unlikely that any candidate could assemble the support necessary to defeat Trump. Here, the Republicans could take a lesson from the Democrats. In 2020 the party establishment closed ranks in support of Joe Biden to stop a surging Bernie Sanders, preventing the kind of insurgency that Trump had pioneered four years before. A similar strategy could be utilized to prevent a third Trump nomination.
But assuming Trump wins and becomes the Republican nominee, it is worth considering the conditions under which Cleveland won and how they compare to Trump’s position now. Cleveland had won the popular vote twice before his non-consecutive run, in his initial election in 1884 and in his defeat in 1888. Indeed, Cleveland remains the only sitting president to have lost an election while winning the popular vote. Such results demonstrate that he was clearly popular and could build a broad national coalition. Thus, in 1892, the main goal for Cleveland was to expand the electoral map so that his Electoral College numbers better reflected his popular vote numbers. By contrast, Trump has never won the popular vote, and his initial victory in 2016 was based on small margins allowing him to run the table in the swing states of the upper Midwest. When those margins disappeared in 2020, he found himself losing the only path to victory through the Electoral College that he had. For Trump in 2024, therefore, the issue is to try and recapture those strategically important states in the Electoral College. The likelihood of a Trump popular vote victory appears out of the question at this point.
Furthermore, in terms of personality, it would be difficult to find two presidents more different than Cleveland and Trump. Cleveland was known for his honesty and integrity. Trump has been placed under numerous federal and state investigations and may be indicted. These personal qualities and the perception of the candidates has an effect on voters’ decisions.
Finally, it is notable that Cleveland’s unique victory was likely aided by the Populist Party nominee James B. Weaver drawing votes away from the incumbent President Benjamin Harrison. More specifically, Weaver won five states in the general election, including three that had gone for Harrison in 1888. The other two, Idaho and North Dakota, were Western states that would have been expected to go Republican. Additionally, Weaver’s vote totals in California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Missouri exceeded the margin of Cleveland’s victory. Thus, while Cleveland won the popular and electoral votes by large margins, it appears likely that Weaver played the role of a spoiler in key states.
While it is possible Cleveland would have won enough states in the Electoral College even without Weaver pulling Republican votes to the Populist ticket, it certainly did not hurt him. As of this writing, no similar third-party candidacy seems poised to draw votes from the 2024 Democratic nominee in a similar way. Rather, the main third-party threat appears to be Trump himself.
Altogether, the conditions that allowed for Cleveland to win a non-consecutive term are not present for Trump. Indeed, when we consider dissatisfaction with Trump-endorsed candidates in the 2022 midterms, Trump’s obsession with claiming the 2020 election was stolen, his public association with anti-Semites like Kanye West, and on-going investigations into his conduct and businesses, his position appears to be far worse than that faced by the other former presidents.
While it is impossible to predict an election so far out and when no other candidate has even declared, overviewing presidents who have mounted comeback campaigns shows that Trump is swimming against the tide in trying to win the presidency for a non-consecutive term.