What The Runners-Up Of 13 Historical Presidential Elections Did After Losing

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Aside from the uncontested election of George Washington in 1789, and James Monroe's unopposed reelection in 1820, every other US president has had to overcome at least one opponent. While historical immortality is guaranteed to the winner, history has not always been kind to the runners-up.

The fates of those who came close to winning the presidency differ greatly. Some bounced back and won the following election, others failed again (and again in one case), and a few made their mark outside of politics. This collection looks at what those who finished second in presidential elections did next. 

Photo: GPA Photo Archive / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

  • 1
    118 VOTES

    Al Smith Oversaw The Construction Of The Empire State Building

    Party: Democratic

    Election: 1928

    Al Smith made history as the first Roman Catholic to run for president (there have only been three since) as the Democratic nominee in 1928. Smith's religion was a factor in the election; opponents leaned into the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time and accused Smith of being a puppet of the Vatican (a charge John F. Kennedy would also have to bat away in 1960).

    Ultimately, the former governor of New York lost decisively to Herbert Hoover, and the largely Protestant communities of upstate New York prevented him from winning his own state. Hoover won 40 out of 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii weren't states at the time). 

    Smith made another attempt to win the nomination in 1932, but lost to his replacement as governor and bitter rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As president of Empire State, Inc., Smith oversaw the construction of the Empire State Building in just 13 months, from 1930-31. He and FDR eventually reconciled after Smith lent his voice to opposing Nazi Germany and supporting America's involvement in World War II.

    118 votes
  • Henry Clay Failed Multiple Bids For The Presidency But Still Secured A Lasting Political Legacy
    Photo: Julian Vannerson or Montgomery P. Simons / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Parties: Democratic-Republican; Whig

    Elections: 1824, 1832, 1844

    Clay's first tilt at the Oval Office was as a rank outsider in the controversial four-way election of 1824. With no clear winner, the House of Representatives had to choose the next president. Clay was Speaker of the House and held a great deal of sway to decide among the three remaining candidates. John Quincy Adams received fewer votes than Andrew Jackson in the election, but had Clay's support and ultimately became president. Clay was appointed Secretary of State amid bitter Jacksonian accusations of striking a "corrupt bargain" with Adams.

    Clay ran twice more as the Whig nominee in 1832 and 1844. He lost his final and closest presidential bid to James K. Polk, a protege of Jackson's. 

    Outside the White House was how Clay made his mark on history. He amassed six stints as Speaker of the House from 1811-25 and represented Kentucky in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He was adept at brokering political compromises and played a key role in such landmark pieces of legislation as the Compromise of 1850. The latter helped prevent a civil war from breaking out, although it ultimately only delayed the conflict.

    Alongside John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, Clay was part of the so-called Great Triumvirate of influential American politicians of the 19th century. Clay was perhaps the most qualified unsuccessful presidential candidate in American history. 

    • Age: Dec. at 75 (1777-1852)
    88 votes
  • Thomas E. Dewey Went From Two-Time Loser To Kingmaker
    Photo: Greystone Studio, N.Y. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Party: Republican

    Elections: 1944, 1948

    A successful lawyer and former governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey lost two presidential elections in the 1940s. The first was a failed bid to stop Franklin D. Roosevelt from gaining an unprecedented fourth term in the White House. Although unsuccessful, Dewey narrowed the margin of victory and was widely expected to win in 1948. The Chicago Daily Tribune even prematurely published a story proclaiming Dewey the victor and led to one of the most infamous pictures in American political history - his opponent, a triumphant Harry S. Truman, holding up the erroneous newspaper.

    Dewey didn’t seek the nomination in 1952 but threw his support behind the eventual winner and future two-term president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dewey had the satisfaction of seeing his bitter rival Robert A. Taft lose the nomination despite garnering more votes in the primaries than Eisenhower. Thanks to Dewey’s backing, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket took the nomination on the second ballot of the Republican National Convention. 

    Dewey saw out his last term as governor and left politics in 1954 to resume his legal career. In the 1960s, he was twice offered the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Eisenhower and later by President Richard M. Nixon, but he declined both offers. Highly regarded for his integrity, Dewey refused to cash in on his political fame. 

    • Age: Dec. at 68 (1902-1971)
    • Birthplace: Owosso, Michigan, United States of America
    96 votes
  • James M. Cox Founded A Media Empire
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Party: Democratic 

    Election: 1920

    The 1920 election was the first in which women could cast a vote, so the losing Democratic candidate James M. Cox had the dubious distinction of being the first presidential loser to be rejected by female voters as well. His running mate was a young climber named Franklin D. Roosevelt, just 38 years old. Interestingly, winning candidate Warren Harding's running mate Calvin Coolidge would also become president, meaning that Cox was the only one of the four men running not to reach the Oval Office. 

    The election also featured a candidate running from prison - Eugene V. Debs had been jailed for his opposition to World War I and gained more than a million votes. Interesting sideshows apart, the result was never really in doubt - Harding strode to a commanding victory by more than 7 million votes, a particularly large gap given the US population was about 100 million at the time. 

    Cox stepped away from political life after seeing out his term as governor of Ohio in 1921. He founded a media empire that today stands as a multi-billion dollar conglomerate: Cox Enterprises, Inc. He would later campaign for his old running mate in 1932 and help the Democrats regain control of the White House. 

    • Age: Dec. at 87 (1870-1957)
    • Birthplace: Jacksonburg, Ohio, USA
    62 votes
  • Alf Landon Was Crushed In 1936, Left Political Life, And Lived To Be 100
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Party: Republican

    Election: 1936

    Aside from the uncontested elections of George Washington and James Monroe, the single most lopsided presidential election was Franklin D. Roosevelt's first reelection campaign in 1936. Alfred "Alf" Landon landed only eight electoral votes, the lowest-ever tally for contested election. With FDR riding high on the wave of the New Deal, Landon was the Republican lamb offered for the slaughter. He struggled to find a consistent message against the popular policies of FDR and made few public appearances. FDR narrowly missed out on a clean sweep of the states, with only Maine and Vermont's electoral votes going to Landon.

    After such a crushing loss, Landon saw out his term as governor of Kansas and walked away from politics for good. He lent his name to a series of lectures hosted by Kansas State University, the Landon Lecture Series, which began with his 1966 lecture and continues to the present day. He lived to see his 100th birthday in 1987.

    • Age: Dec. at 100 (1887-1987)
    • Birthplace: West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, United States of America
    67 votes
  • Winfield Scott Became The First Lieutenant General Since George Washington
    Photo: Charles D. Fredricks & Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    76 VOTES

    Winfield Scott Became The First Lieutenant General Since George Washington

    Party: Whig

    Election: 1852

    "Old Fuss and Feathers" was one of the US's most decorated and accomplished military leaders. With a career stretching back to the War of 1812, Winfield Scott also played a key role in the Mexican-American War. His transition to politics was less successful; Scott unsuccessfully sought the presidential nomination of the Whig party three times before finally securing it in 1852 on his fourth attempt. He was decisively beaten by Franklin Pierce, a former subordinate of Scott's in the army, winning just four states. 

    Scott was the commanding general of the US Army for 20 years and received a brevet promotion to lieutenant general in 1855, the first officer to hold the rank since George Washington. As the prospect of a civil war loomed, Scott drew up a strategy to strangle the Confederacy's economy and avoid overt bloodshed.

    The Anaconda Plan became an important cornerstone of Union strategy during the Civil War. Acutely aware he was not fit for field command, Scott wrote of the need for a young general to oversee the war effort. After his retirement in November 1861, his advice was still sought out by politicians and generals alike. 

    76 votes