If he were British, Donald J. Trump might have an easier time climbing the comeback hill to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The United Kingdom sports 13 leaders who served non-consecutive terms as prime ministers.† Another three gents fulfilled three non-back-to-back tenures. But the prize goes to William Gladstone, who completed four non-adjacent stretches as prime minister. Of course, the party picks the PM in England, not the people, which is another reason Mr. Trump might wish he hailed from the land where someone is always ready to “put the kettle on.”
In the United States, only one man has returned to the presidency after losing, and that was Grover Cleveland, who served as the 22nd and 24th president. Cleveland actually won the popular vote in 1888 but lost the Electoral College because he didn’t carry his home state of New York. In American parlance, one could say, “Ain’t that a kick in the pants.”
Comeback Loser Club
After completing his first and only presidential term, Martin Van Buren failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1844, so he ran as a member of the Free Soil Party in 1848 and lost. Likewise, Millard Fillmore was denied the nomination by the Whig Party but ran again as the nominee of the Know Nothing Party to no avail. Ulysses S. Grant sort of qualifies for the Comeback Loser Club — but not really. He retired after his second term in office but in 1880 was rejected as a third-term nominee by the Republican Party. Theodore Roosevelt met a similar fate. He left the White House after his one full term; trying for a comeback in 1912, he failed to gain Republican support, and ultimately lost as the nominee of the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party. And then, of course, there was the epic loss of Herbert Hoover in 1932 to FDR, who mounted a comeback in 1940 but didn’t win the GOP nomination.
In a quirky twist of fate, two presidents to lose immediately following their first term were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, though Adams-the-younger did go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts.
That American history is against him likely means little to Donald J. Trump, and perhaps he is right to believe in himself rather than precedent. Mr. Trump’s first foray into politics took him to the pinnacle of political power in one fell swoop, which in and of itself is a rarity of monumental proportions. One thing the former president has going for him is a strong standing within the Republican Party, as it was within their own parties where all five who belong to the Comeback Loser Club met their Waterloo. Should Mr. Trump have a Napoleonic moment, it is unlikely to be at the hands of the GOP, where he remains wildly popular.
So, what are the chances that Mr. Trump will make history Grover Cleveland-style? Again, we look to the United Kingdom because betting on politics in the United States is technically illegal. According to Oddschecker.com, the Brits currently have Mr. Trump as a 3/1 favorite. But then again, they also have Tucker Carlson at 33/1. Maybe they are all hopped up on too much caffeine-rich tea. Or perhaps the Brits are on to something and can see things more clearly from across the pond.
† The following served two terms: Thomas Pelham-Holles, Charles Watson Wentworth, William Pitt (the Younger), William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, Arthur Wellesley, William Lamb, Robert Peel, Henry John Temple, John Russell, Benjamin Disraeli, Ramsay Macdonald, Winston Churchill, and Harold Wilson. Three terms: Edward Geoffrey Stanley, Robert Cecil, Stanley Baldwin. Four terms: William Ewart Gladstone.
~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.