Can We Learn Anything From Losers

Jan 13, 2015 | Elections, Elections - Other, Elections - Presidential (2012), General Advice, History

Published: Good Men Project (January 13, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa looks for lessons in the lives and legacies of the presidential ‘Also Rans.’


I have looked by the way at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party. They become a loser for life, alright?
—Mitt Romney, from the documentary, Mitt


There is something oddly poignant about the plight of America’s “Also Rans,” the 38 men throughout our history who were officially nominated as the presidential candidate of a major party only to lose in the general election. Of those 38, only nine were ever given a second chance by being renominated; and of those nine only four actually won in one of their subsequent attempts—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William H. Harrison, and Richard M. Nixon. As Irving Stone put it in his classic biographical collection, “They Also Ran”:

… the curiosity about the new personality is gone, the novelty has worn off, the issues have changed. The electorate is fickle; it wants a new political romance with each election. Too many charges have been hurled by the opposition; the strength of the case against the candidate is known. Americans will root for the underdog at a prize fight or football game but not in a presidential race.

The other 34 are left with nothing but the ignominy of being forever remembered as—to use Romney’s own brutally perceptive description—“a loser for life.” As signs abound that Romney may try to shed his Also Ran status through another presidential bid in 2016, this would be a great time to glean what we can about the broader lessons we can learn from our nation’s other Also Rans.

  1.   Our legacies define not only how others view us as men, but how we view ourselves.

Of all the Also Rans who never became president, perhaps none was as fortunate as Samuel J. Tilden. One of only four Also Rans who won the popular vote while losing in the general election, he is also among only two who was never elected in a follow-up effort (the other being Al Gore). While Gore reacted to his defeat by becoming an advocate for climate change prevention (more on that in a moment), Tilden accepted the fact that he would never be president with a telling observation:

I can retire to private life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.

While this can be interpreted as a dry attempt at comedy, there is a certain sagacity to Tilden’s insight. After all, contemporary observers and future historians generally agree that Tilden was the victim of electoral fraud at the hands of his Republican opponents (who put Rutherford Hayes in the White House over him). As Tilden saw it, one of the emotional advantages of being president was knowing that you had been given the greatest “gift” that the American people could bestow upon one of its citizens. When he noted that he had been lucky to receive this gift while being spared any of its concurrent headaches, Tilden had a point.

Unfortunately for every other Also Ran (sans Gore), the American people’s gift was ultimately given to their sworn opponent, thus depriving them of the comfort that Tilden derived from his own outcome. This brings us to George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. One day he serendipitously encountered Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. Both McGovern and Mondale had been defeated under very similar circumstances, losing by 49 out of 50 states and a 3-to-2 popular vote margin to Republican incumbents (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively). Naturally, Mondale asked McGovern how long it took to get over the pain of his loss. McGovern’s reply?

I’ll let you know when I get there.

This brings us to the next point…

  1.   Accept the pain of failure when it happens.

Not every Also Ran has ultimately overcome the pain of loss. The most conspicuous example of this is Horace Greeley, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1872, who actually went insane from the viciousness of the attacks made against him (which he felt caused his wife’s death during the campaign) and the devastation of his landslide loss to President Ulysses S. Grant. Before the Electoral College could even convene for the casting of ballots, Greeley had emotionally tortured himself into an early grave.

Of course, even Also Rans who don’t suffer as dramatically as Greeley can still be destroyed by the experience. Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, was so embittered by his misfortune at having been nominated in a year when the Republicans were bound to win (i.e., during the prosperity of the 1920s) that he nursed a lifelong grudge against the Democrat who was lucky enough to run against Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite laying the foundations for many of the programs that Roosevelt eventually implemented as president, Smith could never accept that fate had been so unkind to him, and consequently spent the rest of his career denouncing everything he had once supported out of envy for the man who was receiving primary credit for them.

The main difference between Greeley and Smith is that the former was unable to physically move beyond the intense emotions he felt during his own battle, while the latter moved past them in body but not in spirit. On both occasions, however, each man’s downfall occurred because he allowed his sense of failure to define how he viewed himself. Whether by dying or abandoning his own values, both proved unable to preserve the men they were when plunged into the abyss of defeat.

And what of the vast majority of people, who were neither as blessed in their failures as Tilden or as cursed as Greeley? Fortunately, there are hopeful examples for them to follow …

  1.   Be proactive in making sure that your failure doesn’t become the end of your story.

One strong thread ties all of the happiest Also Rans together: Despite knowing that they would never rank among America’s rarefied litany of presidents, each one found some way of continuing their personal journey after the votes had been counted.

Sometimes this happened through a single defining moment. Henry Clay, who along with William Jennings Bryan has the dubious distinction of losing in three general elections (1824, 1832, and 1844), mustered all of his considerable political skill toward staving off a civil war by throwing his weight behind the Compromise of 1850; Stephen Douglas, despite having been personal rivals with Abraham Lincoln (his Republican opponent in 1860) since they were youths, set aside his feelings and toured the South on his erstwhile nemesis’s behalf in a vain attempt to convince them not to secede; and Wendell Willkie, despite losing to Franklin Roosevelt in a very bitter campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, urged the large isolationist wing in his own party to back the president as he led America through World War II.

On other occasions, this has entailed returning to their roots. Charles Evans Hughes had resigned from the Supreme Court to accept the Republican presidential nomination in 1916, coming very close to actually defeating President Woodrow Wilson in the process. Despite his disappointment, Hughes wasted no time in returning to politics and the law; as such, when Chief Justice William H. Taft (the only former president to serve on the Supreme Court) passed away in 1930, Hughes was in an excellent position to be appointed as his successor. Similarly, John McCain has not only continued with his work in the Senate since losing to Obama, but has consistently supported hawkish foreign policy positions not only against a Democratic president, but even against members of his own party (including libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky). Having entered politics because of his passion for a muscular foreign policy, it is fitting that McCain should spend the end of his career fighting for those same values.

Then there are the Also Rans who managed to reinvent themselves … although even then, it was usually by tapping into their deeper passions. James G. Blaine, the Republican nominee in 1884, was appointed Secretary of State by President Benjamin Harrison and proceeded to launch a bold new direction in America’s foreign policy with Latin America. Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, served under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, particularly distinguishing himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally there is Al Gore, who had been ahead of the political curve in focusing on the perils of man-made global warming before running for president (or serving as vice president) and resumed that role after the success of his 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.


As these examples demonstrate, it is possible to overcome the agony of defeat. It isn’t even necessary to slough off the strong emphasis that American culture places on professional success. That said, one must avoid the pitfalls of bitterness and self-torture that can easily rise up after an ineffable and defining loss. Should Mitt Romney decide against running in 2016, or should he do so only to lose either the nomination or general election a second time, he would be well-advised to turn to his Also Ran counterparts for wisdom.

Footnote: This list obviously doesn’t include incumbent presidents who lost bids for another term in office or the four Also Rans who were elected on another try (Jefferson, Jackson, Harrison, and Nixon). The list starts with the election of 1804, after the passage of the Twelfth Amendment required presidential tickets to specifically designate which candidates were respectively running for president and vice president (confusion over this matter prompted an electoral college crisis during the 1800 election). It includes Charles Pickney (Federalist – 1804, 1808), DeWitt Clinton (Federalist – 1812), Rufus King (Federalist – 1816), Henry Clay (Democratic-Republican – 1824, National Republican – 1832, Whig – 1844), Lewis Cass (Democrat – 1848), Winfield Scott (Whig – 1852), John C. Fremont (Republican – 1856), Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat – 1860), George B. McClellan (Democrat – 1864), Horatio Seymour (Democrat – 1868), Horace Greeley (Democrat/Liberal Republican – 1872), Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat – 1876), Winfield S. Hancock (Democrat – 1880), James G. Blaine (Republican – 1884), William J. Bryan (Democrat – 1896, 1900, 1908), Alton B. Parker (Democrat – 1904), Charles E. Hughes (Republican – 1916), James M. Cox (Democrat – 1920), John W. Davis (Democrat – 1924), Alfred E. Smith (Democrat – 1928), Alfred M. Landon (Republican – 1936), Wendell L. Willkie (Republican – 1940), Thomas E. Dewey (Republican – 1944, 1948), Adlai E. Stevenson (Democrat – 1952, 1956), Barry M. Goldwater (Republican – 1964), Hubert H. Humphrey (Democrat – 1968), George S. McGovern (Democrat – 1972), Walter F. Mondale (Democrat – 1984), Michael S. Dukakis (Democrat – 1988), Robert J. Dole (Republican – 1996), Albert A. Gore (Democrat – 2000), John F. Kerry (Democrat – 2004), John S. McCain (Republican – 2008), and Willard “Mitt” Romney (Republican – 2012).