The Odds Are Against Ex-presidents Who Vie for the White House

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland is the only former U.S. president to win another term after leaving the office. Library of Congress

Imagine reapplying for your job after being let go. It would be tough enough to convince your former employer to rehire you, but what about when that employer is roughly 170 million American people?

That's exactly what four past U.S. presidents have tried to do. They've lost an election and tried to run again later. And now it appears Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 presidential election after serving one term as the 45th president is attempting to do the same. Trump announced he was running for president for the third time Nov. 15, 2022, making him the fifth ex-president in U.S. history to do so.


The last time an ex-president tried to get his job back was before the 19th Amendment was ratified and women could legally vote. But what is even rarer than defeated presidents who ran again? Those who won the presidency. Just one in history has done that and the honor goes to Grover Cleveland, who is the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

What helped Cleveland win his second time around may have been the support of the Democratic Party for which he was the official candidate. The other three candidates who lost ran on third-party tickets and third-party candidates have historically fared badly, unless we're talking about the mid-19th century when the Republicans replaced the Whigs and became the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Let's take a look at these four former presidents who wanted to make their version of a comeback album.


Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

Free Soil Party campaign ad
This commentary on Barnburner Democrat Martin Van Buren's opposition to regular Democratic party nominee Lewis Cass show Van Buren and his son John (wearing smock, far right) feeding an already raging fire in a dilapidated barn. On the left, Cass prepares to leap from the roof while several rats escape below him. John, adding another pitchfork of hay to the flames, exclaims, "That's you Dad! more 'Free Soil.' We'll rat 'em out yet. Long life to Davy Wilmot." Library of Congress

Democrat Martin Van Buren came to the presidency like many others, through the office of vice presidency. He was Andrew Jackson's second VP. Van Buren also served as secretary of state during Jackson's first term. Van Buren was easily elected president in 1836, defeating three regional Whig candidates. His presidency included economic issues following the panic of 1837 and questions about slavery and Westward expansion.

Although the Democrats backed Van Buren for the 1840 election, the Whigs had pulled together, selected William Henry Harrison and promoted the heck out of him with the memorable campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" (John Tyler was Harrison's running mate). The late Joel Silbey, emeritus professor of history at Cornell University, wrote for the Miller Center that the president "remained close in the popular vote but Harrison crushed him in the Electoral College."


After some time away from the White House, Van Buren was convinced by the Free Soil Party – a faction that had split from the Democratic Party — to run as its candidate in 1848. Although the former president did not expect to win, Joshua Zeitz writes for Politico, he did want to improve the standing of the New York Barnburners, a progressive faction of the Democratic Party. Ultimately, Van Buren and Democratic candidate Lewis Cass lost to Whig Zachary Taylor. With 10.1 percent of the vote to Taylor's 47.3 percent and Cass' 42.5 percent, Van Buren's run could have swung the election away from the Democrats.

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore was a member of the Whig party, and the last president to be neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Library of Congress

The 13th U.S. president "knew nothing" about winning elections — perhaps because he was never elected by the people. Millard Fillmore was vice president when President Zachary Taylor died in July 1850 after just more than a year in office. Within months, Fillmore had signed into law five bills, including the Fugitive Slave Act. As a result, he was not chosen as the Whig candidate for the 1852 election.

But Filmore didn't lose hope of returning to the White House. Rather than join the new Republican Party, in 1856 he ran under the Know Nothing (American) Party. Since there has never officially been a Know Nothing president, it's clear that Fillmore lost, but he did secure 21.6 percent of the popular vote, which earned him eight electoral votes.


Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)

Grover Cleveland inauguration
Grover Cleveland is seen here on his inauguration March 4, 1885, at the East Portico of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. This was the 25th inauguration of a U.S. president. Library of Congress

Now for the sole success story. Incumbent president Cleveland, a Democrat, lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison despite besting him in the popular vote. Cleveland had 48.6 percent to Harrison's 47.8 percent. But Harrison won in the Electoral College with 233 votes to Cleveland's 168.

However, neither Cleveland nor his Democratic Party lost faith. He was nominated again for the 1892 election and this time he won, overtaking Harrison in popular and electoral votes, as well as beating out Populist Party candidate James B. Weaver.


But party support means a lot, and Cleveland no longer had his by the 1896 presidential election. Instead, the Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan to run on the ticket. If "President Bryan" doesn't sound familiar, you can guess how that election turned out for the Democrats, as well as the elections of 1900 and 1908 when the party nominated him again (and again).

Cleveland is still the only ex-president to served two non-consecutive terms.


Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt served twice as president of the United States, and tried to get reelected again but failed. Library of Congress

A man who needs no introduction, President Theodore Roosevelt slid into office when President William McKinley was assassinated Sep. 6, 1901. Known for his high-pitched voice, jutting jaw and pounding fist, Roosevelt was easily elected for another term in 1904. After leaving office on his own volition, Roosevelt became disappointed with "his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft," Drew DeSilver wrote for Pew Research Center.

Unable to secure the Republican nomination, Roosevelt ran again anyway in 1912 after launching the Progressive Party. Although he lost to Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt came in second, and his performance is still the best ever by a third-party candidate. Four candidates were vying for the Oval Office in 1912: Wilson (the Democrat and winner), Roosevelt (Progressive), Taft (Republican) and Eugene V. Debs (Socialist). Roosevelt came in second in both the popular (27.4 percent) and electoral (88) votes.


There have been other ex-presidents who would have liked to run again, but without the support of their party, decided not to move forward. Ulysses S. Grant had served two terms, retired from politics but tried to gain the Republican nomination in 1880, which went instead to James Garfield. Herbert Hoover also unsuccessfully pursued the GOP nomination twice after he was ousted from the presidency by Franklin D. Roosevelt.