The Five Most Important General Election Runners Up

From the writer that brought you The Top Five Best Secretaries of State, Five Fascinating LifespansThe (five) Most Successful Presidential Runs From House Members, and Five Interesting Things about the Declaration of Independence You Might Not Have Known But Now Will, here’s another patented “PPFA Top Five.” I thought it’d be interesting to identify the five most important runners up in presidential election history.

To qualify for the list, applicants must meet the following rules:

  1. They can never have served as president;
  2. They must have finished in second place; and
  3. They can’t be so obscure that I wouldn’t be able write much about them. (I’m looking at you, Horatio Seymour.)

Without further ado…

#5. Hillary Clinton, Democrat, runner up in the Election of 2016

I alternate between feeling that this selection is ranked too high due to recency bias and feeling that she’s actually not ranked high enough. On the one hand, this election just happened, and it’s therefore impossible to know Clinton’s long-term impact. On the other hand… the first female nominee of a major party? That feels like something people will reference, even if it’s just trivia, a hundred years from now. How many people know the name of the person who lost the election a hundred years ago? Not many. (It was James M. Cox.) Therefore, once our current politics are lost and forgotten (not unlike her emails from the State Department), she’ll serve as an inspiration for future women. (If you’re a Republican and think that’s preposterous, consider how controversial Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton once were to political conservatives, yet they are now universally accepted as trailblazers.)

Still, it’s not just trivia and potential inspiration that qualifies her for today’s list. It’s worth noting that her loss at least partly contributed to the huge turnout from women in the 2018 midterms, which gave Democrats control of the House, which then hemmed in Donald Trump’s presidency to the point where he’ll likely be impeached. Love Trump or hate him, having an oppositional House is undoubtedly impactful on what he can accomplish. It’s also reasonable to conclude women will play a huge role in the general election next year, and many of them will be getting revenge for Hillary Clinton, the fifth most important general election runner up in presidential election history.

#4. Aaron Burr, Democratic-Republican, runner up in the Election of 1800

The Election of 1800 was our only electoral tie in history. The two winning candidates — Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr — finished with 73 electoral votes each, which kicked the election to the House, which the Constitution invests with the power of tiebreaker. What made this tie awkward was that Jefferson and Burr were running mates!

See, the framers of the Constitution did not account for the emergence of political parties. Sitting behind that blind spot, they determined that the winner of the Electoral College should be president, while its runner up should be vice president, as those two men would be the most acceptable national candidates. That’s precisely what happened in our first two administrations, and it worked out fine. In 1788/9 and 1792, the runner up to George Washington was John Adams, the essential founding father and diplomat who became a logical first VP. This result raised no problems, since Washington and Adams had comparable ideologies.

Then things started to go off the rails. By the 1796 election, when it came time to choose would would succeed Washington, our first two parties had emerged: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists rallied to VP Adams as their preferred presidential candidate, while the Democratic-Republicans turned to former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Adams won a close one, but Jefferson, who finished in second, became his VP. It was an awkward situation when different parties with different priorities divided our President and Vice President — the latter a heartbeat away from replacing the former.

The two parties tried to get around this weirdness by telling electors, each of whom could originally cast two ballots in the Electoral College, to vote for two Federalists or two Democratic-Republicans. In 1800, when Jefferson and Adams had a rematch, this system worked a little too well. Each candidate had a running mate — Jefferson had Burr, Adams had Charles Pinckney. All 73 pro-Democratic-Republican electors voted in lockstep for Jefferson and Burr, resulting in the awkward tie. (Adams finished with 65 and Pinckney 64 — a perfect execution from the Federalists, even if they lost.)

Burr was expected to essentially abdicate the presidency to Jefferson and serve as the latter’s VP, but he instead maneuvered to win the House tiebreaker. Jefferson ultimately prevailed (surprisingly thanks to the influence of arch-rival Alexander Hamilton, who abhorred Burr more than he did Jefferson), and Burr became his vice president. (For his troubles, Hamilton was shot and killed by Vice President Burr.) Wanting to avoid the mess of the last two elections — 1796’s split executive branch and 1800’s messy tie — Congress and the states passed the Twelfth Amendment, which re-organized presidential elections into the official presidential tickets with which we’re familiar today. Burr’s actions were a primary impetus behind the change. So: important.

#3. Barry Goldwater, Republican, runner up in the Election of 1964

In 1964, the Republicans needed to offer a sacrifice to popular incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, and they chose Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. He had an impossible task. The Democratic Party powered through its most dominant run ever — in the nine presidential elections from 1932 through 1964, a Democrat won seven times. Johnson, who had taken over for the popular, assassinated JFK about a year earlier, was certain to win a term of his own. The Texans’ popularity in his home state and Midwest nicely complimented the party’s popularity in the north and west, including among minorities and other activists who saw Johnson as a way to continue Kennedy’s vision (as seen with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Kennedy proposed five months before his death). The election was set up to be a blowout, and a blowout it was. Goldwater won just six states — his home state of Arizona and five Deep South states that felt betrayed by the increasingly liberal Democratic Party.

In the process, however, Goldwater planted the seeds of the modern conservative movement. He drew distinctions between Republican policies and the rising socialistic tendencies of the new Democratic Party. Republicans soon began siphoning voters from what had been the dual backbones of the old Democratic Party — southerners and the white middle class. (This election was the last time a Democratic candidate won the white vote.) Goldwater marked the turning point that set up a nice Republican run, including the Reagan revolution 16 years later and the Trump revolution a generation after that. Indeed, the period of Democratic dominance in the White House ended with the next election. After Democrats had won seven of nine elections, starting in 1968 Republicans won five of the next six.

#2. William Jennings Bryan, Democrat, runner up in the elections of 1896, 1900and, 1908

Similar to Goldwater, Bryan’s losing effort(s)(s) had long-term implications for his party. Many of his populist and progressive ideas connected with turn-of-the-century Americans, and those became increasingly strong factions in the Democratic Party.

Bryan gets the edge over Goldwater not only because of the looming long stretch of Democratic power in our legislative and executive branches, but because he laid the more surprising foundation. Conservative Democrats had already been cooling on the party before Goldwater in 1964. Where else (a short run from the Dixiecrats notwithstanding) could they go? Goldwater certainly outlined a clear vision for modern Republicanism, but perhaps he merely lubricated the gears of inevitability.

Conversely, Bryan took a party that for a century had been southern and conservative and laid the foundation for a populist and urban working class coalition. He also modernized the approach to national elections — touring the country and giving dramatic stump speeches.

Appropriately, as important as the perennial runner up was, he yet again finishes second today. The most important general election loser in presidential history is…

#1. John C. Fremont, Republican, runner up in the Election of 1856

For proper context, here’s a basic evolution of our two party system, vis-a-vis the presidency, before Fremont:

  • 1789-1797: A man above partisanship, President Washington watches in frustration as Jefferson and Hamilton create our first two political parties. Those two parties are…
  • 1797-1821: The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe each preside over a two-party nation. By Monroe’s re-election, however, the Federalists are dead.
  • 1821-1833: Long live the Democratic-Republicans! Monroe ushers in the short-lived “Era of Good Feelings” across the country, winning all but one electoral vote in the Election of 1820. Only Democratic-Republicans run in the two elections after him, which sets up John Quincy Adams‘s only term and Andrew Jackson’s first term. Jackson is an extremely divisive president, however, and soon an opposition party rises against his “Jacksonian Democrats” — the Whigs.
  • 1833-1853: From Jackson’s second term and through Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce, the Democrats and Whigs trade presidents. The Democrats dominate southern politics, while the Whigs’ stronghold is in the north. However, as the issue of slavery divides the nation, many northern liberals saw the Whigs as too moderate on the issue and soon left to form a strongly abolitionist party. The Whigs would never again have a competitive presidential nominee. Most of its southern voters left for the Democratic Party, while most of its northern voters left for that new party — the Republicans. By 1856, they were ready to nominate their first candidate for president. His name was… John C. Fremont.

Though Fremont would lose the election to Democrat James Buchanan — partly thanks to the short-lived “Know Nothing” party splitting former Whig votes with their nomination of former Whig President Millard Fillmore — his message became the core of the Republican Party. Its slogan for his campaign says it all: “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!”

The results of the election explain the electoral politics of the time. Nationwide, Fremont won a third of the vote (to Buchanan’s 45%), but if we filter that vote through a free state/slave state split, here’s what we get:


Whereas the north was willing to consider both strong parties, slave states were totally closed off to the anti-slave Fremont. In fact, he didn’t even appear on the ballot in 10 of the nation’s 14 slave states! In total, Buchanan was able to net 174 electoral votes from 19 states to Fremont’s 114 and 11. (Fillmore won only Maryland’s eight electoral votes.) As a result, Buchanan became the 15th president, while Fremont was relegated to historical footnote.

Nevertheless, four years later, his platform remained in the Republican Party when it helped elect our first Republican president. You may have heard of him. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

That’s not such a bad legacy for John C. Fremont, the most important general election runner up in American history.


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