The Many One-term Presidents

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Americans may be surprised to learn that our history includes as many one-term Presidents as those who have served even parts of two terms. Do the details portend anything for the curent chief Executive?

The 18th and 19th Centuries

George Washington was elected unanimously twice without party affiliation. By the end of his second term, the country was divided between Federalists and Democratic Republicans, and a bitter election resulted in the choice of John Adams over Thomas Jefferson in 1796. Jefferson reversed the result in 1800, making Adams the first one-termer.

The “Virginia Dynasty” of Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe each won two terms. But from 1824 to The Civil War, only Andrew Jackson was elected twice. John Quincy Adams prevailed in a controversial election in 1824 which ended in the House of Representatives and lost to Jackson four years later.

Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin VanBuren, William Henry Harrison, who died after one month in office, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, who died in office, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan all served one term or less. Polk, victor of the Mexican War, was the only one who could have won reelection, but chose not to run.

Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 and 1864 but was assassinated barely into his second term. His successor, Andrew Johnson, escaped removal from office by one vote after impeachment. Civil War hero U.S. Grant won two terms, but Ruthrford B. Hayes, the assassinated James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur never ran a second time, Garfield for obvious reasons.

Grover Cleveland had the unique experience of winning, losing, and winning again, while Benjamin Harrison served one term in between. William McKinley won two terms as an advocate of business in an emerging world economic power, and as victor of the Spanish-American War.

The 20th Century and Beyond

Theodore Roosevelt, succeeding the assassinated McKinley, won a term of his own in 1904, but William Howard Taft lost a three-party contest in 1912 as a disappointed T.R. tried to regain the White House. Woodrow Wilson, the beneficiary, was narrowly reelected in 1916. The winner in 1920, Warren Harding, died in 1923, opening the way for his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, to be elected in 1924. Herbert Hoover’s bid for a second term in 1932 was doomed by the Great Depression.

Franklin D. Roosevelt uniquely won four elections. Succeeding him on his death in 1945, Harry Truman surprisingly won a full term in 1948, but did not seek reelection in 1952. World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower won two terms overwhelmingly. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was considered a shoo-in for a second term before his assassination. His successor, Lyndon Johnson won in 1964 but did not run again.

Richard Nixon, elected closely in 1968 and overwhelmingly in 1972, was forced to resign by a political scandal. The succeeding Vice President Gerald Ford was defeated for reelection by Jimmy Carter, who in turn lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan. The latter’s Vice President, George H. W. Bush, was a one-term President, losing to two-termer Bill Clinton, leading to two close elections won by George W. Bush.

Any Discernible Trends?

About half of our 43 past Presidents have served no more than one term. Inability to deal convincingly with seemingly intractable issues like the economy (VanBuren, Hoover, Ford, Carter, and the first Bush) and sectional issues (the pre-Civil War Presidents) are leading obstacles to reelection. Intra-party divisions have done in others (Tyler, B. Harrison, Taft, Carter again). The inability to communicate is less tangible but clearly a factor, especially in the modern media age. But each election is a different blend of issues and personalities, and luck certainly plays a part.