Many of those in favor of term limits cite the unfair advantage enjoyed by the incumbent in any political race. This is especially true of the President. An incumbent President running for re-election has immediate access to publicity and coverage on a national scale, to show one of many built-in advantages. But in spite of all the advantages an incumbent President enjoys over any opponent, he isn’t always re-elected. A number of Presidents have been given their “pink slip” by the American electorate.
The first President to be ousted by the voters was John Adams in 1800. This election is often called the “Revolution of 1800” because it was a complete change of government as complete as any revolution. John Adams and the Federalists were defeated by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Not only did the voters choose a new President, but a new party and a new philosophy. John Adams was not a good loser, and left town the night before Jefferson’s inauguration rather than participate in it. Adams may have been a poor sport, but he was a patriot. He never considered using force to maintain himself in office, as many Europeans expected.
Oddly enough, the next President to get the axe was the son of the first one. John Quincy Adams was defeated in something of a landslide by Andrew Jackson and the new Democratic Party. Like his father, John Quincy Adams left town the night before Jackson’s inauguration. He later served a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1840, Martin Van Buren tried to discuss the issues, such as the depression and the Independent Treasury System he established. William Henry Harrison and the Whigs staged parades and parties, and sung their way into the White House by avoiding any discussion of the issues. They also managed to blame the depression, and almost everything else wrong at the time, on Van Buren. As a result, he was defeated for re-election.
In 1856, Franklin Pierce wanted to be re-elected, but never got the chance to face an opponent in the election. His own party refused to re-nominate him, and chose someone else. To this day, Pierce remains the only President to be denied re-nomination by his party. Even Herbert Hoover, in the midst of the Great Depression and facing certain defeat at the polls, won re-nomination on the first ballot.
When Grover Cleveland ran for re-election in 1888, he won the popular vote by almost 100,000 votes. But the distribution of votes produced an anomaly in the Electoral College. Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote. Cleveland left the White House and spent the next four years preparing to run again. Four years later, Cleveland defeated the man who had beaten him four years earlier. In the process, Cleveland became one of the few men to win his party’s presidential nomination three times.
It was Benjamin Harrison’s turn in 1892. Four years earlier, he had defeated Grover Cleveland in the all-important Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote to Cleveland. In 1892, Cleveland and Harrison had a re-match, and this time Cleveland won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, and it was Harrison who lost his job.
In 1912, President William Howard Taft, who had been elected in 1908 with the support of Teddy Roosevelt, found himself running against Teddy Roosevelt for the Republican nomination. When Taft won, Teddy formed the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. In the three-way race between Taft, Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Taft ran a very poor third. With Taft and Teddy splitting the Republican majority, Wilson won many states with only a plurality of the popular vote, but captured all of their electoral votes. The result was a popular plurality but an electoral landslide for Wilson. Wilson took 435 electoral votes to 88 for Teddy, and only 8 for Taft. Taft told a friend, “I have one consolation. No one candidate was ever elected ex-President by such a large majority.”
Herbert Hoover was elected President by a landslide in 1928. In 1929, the Great Depression changed everything. Hoover’s name became a synonym for misery. A “Hoover blanket” was a newspaper used for warmth. A Hooverville was a collection of cardboard and scrap wood shacks. When he ran for re-election in 1932, he had no real chance of winning. He lost in a landslide.
Gerald Ford was the only man to get to the White House without winning a single electoral vote. When Vice President Agnew resigned in the midst of a scandal, Ford became the first man appointed Vice President under the provisions of the 25th Amendment. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford became President. Ford ran for a full term of his own in 1976, and came very close to winning. Although not an elected President, he is included here because of how he became President, and how close he came to winning a full term of his own.
Four years later, Jimmy Carter (the man who had narrowly defeated Gerald Ford four years earlier) found himself faced with high inflation and Americans held hostage by Iran. His opponent, Ronald Reagan, pictured Carter as weak and ineffective, and won in a landslide. Carter won only 49 electoral votes to Reagan’s 489. Carter has spent his retirement years helping the homeless and supervising elections in troubled nations. Many claim that he is the best ex-President we have ever had.
A year before the 1992 election, President George Bush looked unbeatable. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Cold War ended with the collapse of Communism, and we had just completed the inspiringly successful Desert Storm. Yet, after a dip in the economy and a strong Democratic campaign, Bush lost his bid for re-election. He retired to his new home in Texas, and his only foray into politics since then has been to help his son’s successful Presidential campaign.
The President is the only official whose time in office is limited by the Constitution. Yet, as we can see here, incumbents are often defeated for re-election, with or without term limits. The voters regularly vote a sitting President out of office, in spite of the advantages of his office in campaigning for re-election.