On Jan. 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden was sworn in after defeating former president Donald Trump in his bid for reelection. But Trump is certainly not alone among chief executives in falling short of a repeat victory.
According to The Washington Post, of the 45 commanders-in-chief who served prior to Biden, 10 ran again for the nation’s highest office but were unable to secure a second term (three others served one term by choice). Here’s a look at the nation’s one-term leaders who were unable to leverage their incumbent advantage.
- Ten former U.S. presidents were unable to win second terms, including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.
- Some presidents, including Trump, were never able to make serious inroads with voters of the other party; others, like George H.W. Bush, experienced broad approval while in office only to see their approval plummet prior to a follow-up election.
- Several chief executives either never sought a second term or failed to win the nomination of their party during their would-be reelection season.
The nation’s second president was also its first one-termer. He became George Washington’s successor based on his laudable career as a lawyer and diplomat. But a series of controversies, including his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which many saw as a violation of First Amendment rights, eroded his popularity.
He lost to Thomas Jefferson in a particularly acrimonious election in 1800. However, the two founding fathers struck up a correspondence in their later years. And, in one of the nation’s remarkable coincidences, both men died within hours of each other, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
John Quincy Adams
Like his father in 1800, John Quincy Adams failed to repeat his presidential victory four years after making it to the White House. Adams was in some ways a highly consequential statesmen, formulating the Monroe Doctrine, which aimed to bolster U.S. influence over Western hemisphere. Among its core tenets was a willingness to intervene against European powers in any efforts to squash independence movements in Latin America.
However, the sixth president was plagued by accusations of corruption and became a casualty of a shifting political climate. His Whig party had lost clout during his presidency, and the fact that most states had since shifted to a popular vote of electors rather than state legislatures worked in rival Andrew Jackson’s favor.
Martin Van Buren
A former secretary of state, Martin Van Buren became the first president who was never a British subject. The eighth president failed to garner a second term, something that may have had more to due with his predecessor’s policies than his own.
Years earlier, President Andrew Jackson had folded the Second Bank of the United States, which some saw as a stabilizing force for the economy. When the financial markets took a downward during Van Buren’s first year in office, his White House biography notes, there was little way of controlling inflation. Meanwhile, an expansion westward that was fueled by easy credit meant that many settlers lost their property during the depression. Van Buren, who railed against central banks, could do little to stop the economic mess, and he was defeated in 1840 by William Henry Harrison, who died just 32 days into his term.
Long before Bill Clinton’s campaign adopted the informal motto, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the health of the country’s markets often determined the fate of its leaders. That was certainly true of Benjamin Harrison, who presided over a disastrous economic situation during much of his one term.
Harrison simultaneously advanced protectionist policies (passing the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890) and appeased reformers by breaking up monopolies (signing the Sherman Antitrust Act). Unfortunately for Harrison, the country’s woes continued throughout his time in office, with labor strikes making headlines leading up to the election of 1892.
With his wife, Caroline, falling gravely ill, the Republican was unable to campaign extensively, which further diminished his chances. Harrison lost his reelection bid to Grover Cleveland, who acquired nearly twice as many electoral votes, despite receiving fewer than 400,000 more popular votes than Harrison.
Though the legal profession was more his passion than the world of politics, William Taft became the 27th president of the United States, serving between 1909 and 1913. It was his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt’s friendship and support that helped Taft win the election in 1908. However, his relationship with Roosevelt soured while in office, with his mentor believing Taft fell short on delivering the progressive agenda he had hoped for.
Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate in the 1912 election, drawing votes away from Taft; in the end, both were defeated by Woodrow Wilson. (L1) But that didn’t end the Ohioan’s life in the public arena. He went on to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921, making him the only person to serve as both president and as a member of the country’s highest court.
A former secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover’s promise to continue the economic achievements of the previous decade helped him win the presidency in 1928. His party’s pledge—"a chicken for every pot and a car in every backyard”—spoke to a deep-seated optimism about the direction of the economy and of the country.
All that changed when the stock market crashed immediately after Hoover entered office, leading to the Great Depression. Hoover’s inability to stem the economic and financial losses proved disastrous. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that he signed into law raised the price of important goods, and his initial unwillingness to let the government interfere with the markets was widely seen as prolonging the economic malaise. With trust in his leadership eroding, he was defeated in the 1932 election by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Gerald Ford occupied the White House from 1974 to 1977, but was never elected on a presidential ticket. (L1) He became vice president under the 25th Amendment when President Richard Nixon's Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace. As Agnew’s replacement in the No. 2 slot, he ascended to the presidency when the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign.
While in office, Ford pardoned Nixon of all crimes committed while president, an enormously unpopular decision. His chances of reelection were further undermined by low economic growth and inflation—a combination known as “stagflation.” He went on to lose the 1976 election, garnering 240 electoral votes compared to the 297 that Jimmy Carter attained.
The man who beat Ford in the 1976 presidential campaign didn’t fare any better. During his presidency from 1977 to 1981, Jimmy Carter’s administration was beset by a torrent of calamities. The nation’s continued stagflation was compounded by an energy crisis that caused skyrocketing gas prices and shortages at the pump. At one point, the so-called “misery index”—the unemployment rate plus inflation—reached a previously unthinkable 21.98%.
The former peanut farmer had his share of foreign policy troubles as well—his important role in brokering a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt notwithstanding. There was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which reignited Cold War tensions as well as the unsuccessful rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran near the end of his term. Carter candidly referred to the country being in a “malaise” during a speech, which may have sealed his fate. He was roundly defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, winning just six states and the District of Columbia.
However, Carter has had an unusually active post-presidential career, during which he has promoted peace efforts and diplomacy around the world. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
George H.W. Bush
A little over a year into George H.W. Bush’s term, reelection looked almost inevitable. He was given credit for successfully managing foreign affairs as the Soviet Union crumbled. And he helped amass a vast coalition of countries that liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. By February of 1991, Bush enjoyed a sky-high approval rating of 89%.
Unfortunately for the 41st president, it was all downhill from there. His raising of taxes, despite a famous 1988 campaign pledge to do no such thing, eroded trust among conservative voters. An ill-timed recession late in his presidency—combined with poor debate performances against Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and third-party candidate Ross Perot—proved too damaging to overcome. Clinton would go on to garner 370 electoral votes in the 1992 election, compared to just 168 for Bush.
Donald Trump was—and still is—perhaps the most polarizing president in the modern era. The brash real estate tycoon was beloved by Republican voters, at one point achieving a 95% approval rating within his own party in the year of his reelection bid. Many on the right continue to see Trump as a political hero, nominating three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, and passing a major tax cut that many saw as widening the wealth gap.
For those very reasons—and his perceived uneven response to the COVID-19 pandemic—he never polled particularly well with Democrats or even independents. The first president to be impeached twice had an overall Gallup approval rating of 46% in the month before the 2020 election, which he lost by 74 electoral votes to Joseph Biden.
Trump has maintained that Biden’s win was the result of rampant corruption, although subsequent state audits, as well as dozens of failed lawsuits over the election results, prove otherwise. Though he was again acquitted after his second impeachment—this time for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the Capitol building—critics contend that his unsubstantiated claims about election fraud incited the participants. Since leaving office, Trump has weighed in on a series of state and federal elections and announced another run for the White House in 2024.
How Many U.S. Presidents Were Not Able to Win a Second Term?
Ten presidents served one term or less without being re-elected. These include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Which One-Term President Lost Reelection by the Widest Margin?
According to election data from the website 270toWin, Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid by the widest margin in history. Carter won just six states and the District of Columbia, giving him 49 electoral votes. Republican Ronald Reagan cruised to victory with a staggering 489 electoral votes.
Which One-Term President Achieved the Highest Approval Rating While in Office?
The 41st president may have experienced the steepest downward slide of any commander-in-chief. On the heels of victory in the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush enjoyed a Gallup approval rating of 89% in February of 1991. Just over a year later, a sputtering economy and rising inner-city crime caused that number to drop down to 29%. He lost his reelection effort to Bill Clinton in 1992.
Did Any U.S. President Serve One Term by Choice?
Several presidents never sought reelection. James Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes all made assurances that they would only serve for one term—a promise that they kept. That may have worked out for the best in the case of Polk, who left office exhausted and died three months after the end of his term.
Lyndon Johnson, who took over after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and was elected in 1964, shocked the nation by declining to run again four years later. Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman, who similarly stepped into the Oval Office after a president died, also decided to serve only one term.
In the 19th Century, there were multiple cases of men who stepped into the presidency after a death, but never ran at the top of a ticket. Millard Fillmore, who become chief executive when Zachary Taylor died in office, was one such example. Both Andrew Johnson, who came to power after Abraham Lincoln’s shooting, and Chester A. Arthur, who became commander-in-chief after James A. Garfield’s assassination, never received their party’s nomination.