Romney weighs third run in 2016: a brief history of presidential comebacks

In the early years of the country, it often took two tries to reach the White House. But in the past 100 years, only one candidate has come back to win after losing a presidential election.

Gregory Bull/AP
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during the Republican National Committee's winter meeting aboard the USS Midway Museum Friday in San Diego.

With Mitt Romney signaling he’s seriously weighing a third run for the presidency in 2016, one question arises: Does persistence pay off when it comes to winning elections?

Speaking aboard the USS Midway Friday, Mr. Romney said, “I’m giving some serious consideration to the future.” 

Romney was speaking at the final night of the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in San Diego. Mentioning that many people have asked him what his wife, Ann Romney, thought about a third campaign for the White House, he said, “She believes that people get better with experience, and heaven knows I have experience running for president.” 

Now, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. But statistically, the former Massachusetts governor faces a steep climb. Only one presidential candidate in more than 100 years has lost a presidential election and then come back to win later: Richard Nixon, who lost to President Kennedy in 1960 – and then lost the California governor’s race, to boot – before being elected president in 1968.

That’s of those candidates who won their party’s nomination in the first place. Ronald Reagan’s example might prove more heartening to Romney supporters: The Gipper failed to secure the Republican nomination twice, in 1968 and 1976, before defeating President Carter in the 1980 election.

Looking further back, American history provides other examples of those who took more than one try to reach the White House. Bloomberg calculates that one-quarter of US presidents lost before they won – and in one case, won, then lost, then won again.

That would be Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. He was first elected in 1884, lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and then came back to defeat Harrison in 1892.

James Buchanan tried unsuccessfully three times to secure the Democratic nomination before he succeeded in 1856. He then went on to become the country’s 15th president.

William Henry Harrison lost to Martin Van Buren in 1836 before he was elected in 1840. (Victory actually didn’t work out so well for Harrison, who fell ill after a lengthy inauguration speech in freezing rain and snow. He died after one month in office.)

In the early years of the new country, it often took two tries to reach the White House. John Adams lost to George Washington before becoming the second president, while Thomas Jefferson lost to Adams before becoming the third. Jefferson actually tied with Aaron Burr, and ultimately became the country’s third president by one vote of the House of Representatives. He then was elected outright in 1804. 

Andrew Jackson was incensed by the outcome of the 1824 election. He won more popular votes than John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, or William Crawford, but the House voted to elect Adams. Old Hickory came back four years later to defeat Adams and become the seventh president.

A more common fate, though, is to become a perennial also-ran, as in the case of Kentucky Senator Clay, who ran unsuccessfully in 1824, 1832, and 1844, and William Jennings Bryan, who ran three times between 1896 and 1908.

The 20th century did not prove kind to would-be comeback kids. Besides Nixon, nine others since Cleveland have tried to prove the adage that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – only to lose again, according to The Washington Post’s The Fix blog.

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