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.
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.