Losing 101: Most presidents in the last 50 years lost an important election

LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama lost elections, but used the lessons to score future victories.

Vice President Richard Nixon (R) speaks during a Sept. 29, 1960, debate against. Sen. John Kennedy (D) in Chicago. Nixon was the first American presidential candidate to lose an election despite carrying a majority of the states.

My son Joshua recently lost a race for the presidency of his student council. Trying to build up his spirits after this disappointment, I told him that a lot of successful politicians have lost elections. In the process, I reflected on a remarkable datum: The winner of every presidential election in the past 50 years had lost an important election at some point in his career.

Here is the rundown:

  • In 1941, Congressman Lyndon Johnson ran in a special election to replace a Texas senator who had died. He lost to Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the owner of a flour company who also had a popular radio program. 
  • Vice President Richard Nixon not only lost narrowly to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, but he lost by a much wider margin when he tried to unseat California Gov. Pat Brown (father of current governor Jerry Brown) in 1962. 
  • In 1966, a member of the Georgia State Senate named Jimmy Carter sought the Democratic nomination for governor. He placed third, so he did not even make the runoff.
  • Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan ran for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. Incumbent President Gerald Ford beat him in the crucial New Hampshire and Florida primaries. Though Reagan was able to win some of the later contests that year, Ford edged him out at the convention.
  • In his first race for office, Bill Clinton narrowly lost to incumbent Republican House member John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas. He later became attorney general and then governor.  But he lost his first gubernatorial reelection race in 1980.
  • George W. Bush also entered political life by challenging an incumbent House member. In 1978, he ran against Texas Democrat Kent Hance, who mocked the Yale graduate as a clueless preppy from Connecticut. Hance won.
  • In 2000, Barack Obama ran in an Illinois Democratic primary against Representative Bobby Rush. Like George W. Bush, he found that an Ivy League education was not necessarily an advantage. Representative Rush exploited Obama’s Harvard law degree to suggest that he was out of touch with the district. Rush smashed him by a two-to-one margin.

In each of these cases, the loser came back, assessed what he had done wrong, and used the lessons to score future victories. An exhausted Nixon growled to reporters in 1962 that they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore, turning a defeat into a historically embarrassing video moment.  But he soon started making plans for his next presidential run, and, in 1968, he was much shrewder about pacing himself and using television. After losing in 1980, Clinton reflected that he had seemed too aloof and had been too reluctant to beat back attacks. He won the governorship back in 1982, and from then on, nobody could ever again out-Bubba him or hit him politically without response.

So what does this survey of history have to do with current politics? Hillary Clinton, a likely candidate for president, lost the 2008 nomination to Obama. To her chagrin, Obama did a far better job of organizing the grassroots, developing an electronic infrastructure, raising money, and mastering the rules of the nomination process. Like her husband, she learns from setbacks. Expect a 2016 Clinton campaign to excel in the areas where Obama had the advantage last time.

Here is a postscript. A few days after my son’s defeat, we ran into a kindly California state legislator. He had lost his first race, he told Joshua, but then he retooled his campaign style and won. Joshua grinned. Shortly thereafter, Joshua successfully ran for room representative to student council.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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