Presidential popular vote ‘loser-winners’: What became of the other four?

John Quincy Adams
Mathew Brady/National Archives and Records Administration
The first “loser-winner” was John Quincy Adams in 1824, and he’s the only one who lost both the popular and the electoral vote to Andrew Jackson.

Donald J. Trump, who, strangely and inaccurately often claims to have won by a landslide margin in the Electoral College in 2016, is one of five U.S. presidents to have “won” presidential elections while losing the national popular vote. So it occurred to me to look into what became of the others.

Only one of them served a second term. That was the most recent case, the case of George W. Bush, who lost the year 2000 popular vote to Democratic nominee Al Gore, narrowly won in the Electoral College and that only after a case went to the Supreme Court to determine who had carried Florida. Most of us remember that one ourselves.

The first “loser-winner” was John Quincy Adams in 1824, and he’s the only one who lost both the popular and the electoral vote to Andrew Jackson. But that was a four-way race, before the two-party system had really sorted itself out. Andrew Jackson actually finished first in both the popular (41 to 31 percent over runner-up Adams) and electoral (99 to 84) votes, but because the third- and fourth-place finishers also received substantial numbers of electoral votes, no one had an electoral majority, which threw the election into the U.S. House — which chose Quincy Adams, the son of second president and Founding Father John Adams. That caused a scandal that tainted JQA, who sought re-election in 1828 but was crushed by Jackson by 56 to 43.6 percent in a two-way race. That second election is viewed in some important respects as the birth of the Democratic Party that we still have today.

Loser-winner No. 2 was Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. He lost the popular vote by a convincing 51-48 percent margin to Democrat Samuel Tilden. But five states were decided by tiny margins. Four of them were awarded to Hayes by the Republicans under circumstances that reeked of fraud. The results were widely denounced. That one was decided by a special commission, and the commission was also tainted by fraud. Hayes, whose nickname from haters was “Rutherfraud,” didn’t seek a second term.

Case No. 3, which many historians also treat as tainted by fraud – especially vote-buying — was the 1888 election, when Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison of Indiana (grandson of previous president William Henry Harrison and the only presidential grandson ever elected) ousted incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland by a narrow 233-168 in the Electoral College despite Cleveland having won the national popular vote 48.6 to 47.8 percent. Harrison’s term is little remembered, but he did set a record by presiding over the admission of six new states, including both Dakotas.

Although Harrison was renominated in 1892 by the Republicans (at the only national convention ever held in Minneapolis), the Dems gave Cleveland another shot and he crushed Harrison by 277-145 electoral votes to became the only defeated ex-president ever to come back and win (although he had won the popular vote in all three of those elections).

The last pre-Trump case was the recent one of George W. Bush vs. Al Gore. Texas Gov. and Republican nominee Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000 to Democratic Vice President Al Gore by the smallest margin of any of the loser-winners, 47.9 to 48.4. Everything turned on the outcome in Florida, which was ultimately awarded to Bush by a hotly contested, controversy/fraud-tainted margin of only 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast and by a one-justice margin in the U.S. Supreme Court. All of the five justices who voted for Bush were Republican appointees. They voted to end the Florida recount, although the Florida Supreme Court had ruled that it could continue.

Bush’s legitimacy was certainly tainted by this, but he was nonetheless re-elected in 2004 by a tight but less controversial 51.7-48.3 popular vote margin over Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004, making Bush the only loser-winner ever to be re-elected.

Does any of this have anything to do with the future of the loser-winner who currently occupies the Oval? Hard to say. President Donald Trump is tainted by the way he won, but also by a great many other things. (Fill in your favorites here.) It’s hard for me to imagine him getting re-elected. But he’s surprised all of us before.

As a history nerd myself, I was just curious about whether the taint of loser-winning interfered with the political futures of those so embarrassed-honored.

By the way, Trump often claims that he won a “landslide” in the Electoral College vote. Not so much. His wasn’t a one-state margin like Bush’s, but his victory with 56.5 percent of the electoral votes was the 46th biggest out of all 58 presidential elections to date, as displayed in this Wikipedia ranking. That makes it the 14th smallest. But it was the second biggest among the five loser-winners. Benjamin Harrison in 1888 had a bigger share than Trump of the electoral vote.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/22/2019 - 10:18 am.

    The stench of the “corrupt bargain” of 1876 still lingers. The price the nation (and specifically, millions of former slaves in the South) – and ultimately, all of us, even now – paid to put Mr. Hayes in the White House was unconscionable: nearly a century of Jim Crow laws, tolerance and occasional encouragement of the KKK, and a host of other overtly racist policies were made possible by the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/22/2019 - 10:58 am.

    John Quincy Adams was one of those figures who would have a better place in history if he had not been President. He was effective as a diplomat and as Secretary of State, and when he served in the House of Representatives after his presidency, he was a vigorous legislative opponent.

    He was also one of the two Presidents known to be able to speak Dutch.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 01/22/2019 - 11:17 am.

      Might be able to make the same argument regarding Trump. “Failed casino owner, huckster of meats, Trump University scholar, and reality TV star” might end up looking pretty good when historians dissect what his actions did to this country and the world years from now.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/22/2019 - 12:26 pm.

        No, Trump has failed miserably at everything he has ever done. If he had taken his inheritance and invested in average-performing mutual funds, he’d be worth many times what he is worth (or claims to be – who knows what he is really worth) today.

        I expect history will reveal we elected a man under the influence of a foreign power. The first president to be a literal traitor to this country.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/22/2019 - 11:09 am.

    “Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. He lost the popular vote by a convincing 51-48 percent margin…”

    “Bush’s legitimacy was certainly tainted by this, but he was nonetheless re-elected in 2004 by a tight but less controversial 51.7-48.3 popular vote margin…”

    This is fine.

  4. Submitted by Roy Everson on 01/22/2019 - 11:29 am.

    What’s very worrisome is the possibility of the Republicans winning a couple more times in this fashion in the next decade. They would probably double down against any attempts to get rid of the Electoral College since they crave power more than consent of the governed. Meanwhile a majority of voters would have to swallow continued rule by popular vote losers. This would not end well.

    On the other hand if the shoe were on the other foot Republicans might regain an interest in democracy.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/22/2019 - 11:54 am.

    The immediately previous loser-winner’s victory is somewhat disconcerting. My hypothesis is tied to the curious habit of sticking with bad choices. So many ofvthe never-trumpers became hold-your-nose supporters & now seem to be sticking with him, scandal after scandal, despite never-ending unforced errors, blatant racism and clear disinterest in and incompetence at doing the job.

    The only real hope is that the opposition figures out how to compromise and nominate a candidate that doesn’t depress their own turnout efforts.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/22/2019 - 12:05 pm.

    SCOTUS in Gore V. Bush: Stop the counting, we’re ahead!


  7. Submitted by John Webster on 01/22/2019 - 02:54 pm.

    It’s a long explanation, but the ultimate arbiter of who received Florida’s electoral votes in 2000 was the Governor of that state: Jeb Bush. The Florida legislature (with large Republican majorities) had the legal right to name the electors – even to overrule the popular vote – and GOP leaders made clear that they were prepared to award those electors to GW Bush. Democrats would have submitted their own slate of electors for counting by the U.S. Congress, which is required by the U.S. Constitution. There would then have been disputed slates of electors, with each house of Congress having to choose between them. The House had a Republican majority which would have awarded the electors to Bush; the Senate was 50/50, with VP Gore being the tiebreaking vote for himself.

    Federal election law held that if Congress couldn’t agree on awarding the electors, the state’s Governor had the final decision. Jeb Bush would no doubt have chosen his brother’s electors. I voted for Gore in 2000, but by the election laws in effect then Bush won fair and square.

    • Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 01/24/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      However, consider the possibility that Mr. Smarty-Pants outsmarted himself. If Gore had called for a statewide recount instead of looking for the last uncounted Democrats in two counties, he may have won the numbers count and — because everyone was recounted — taken away the Supreme Court’s flimsy Equal Protection basis for stopping the recount. BTW I voted the same way you did.

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