“I am not a candidate.
I will not become a candidate.
I will support the nominee of my party with all the energy I have.”
With this, former President Gerald Ford announced in March 1980 that he would not make a late entrance into the Republican presidential nomination race after long teasing a potential bid. For decades, this marked the nearest any former president had come to seeking a return to the White House in the modern political era — until former President Donald Trump announced his presidential bid in November.
Trump’s comeback campaign is unprecedented since the contemporary nomination system took shape in the 1970s. Yet in the broader history of presidential elections, his comeback effort is unusual — but not unheard of. Former presidents like Martin Van Buren, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt each mounted serious post-presidency campaigns to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue between 1844 and 1912. In fact, five former presidents have won at least some delegates at major-party national conventions, as the table below shows.
Trump isn’t the first former president to attempt a comeback
Former presidents who won delegate support at a major party’s national convention
|Year||Party||Former president||Largest delegate %||Won nomination|
|1844||D||Martin Van Buren*||54.9%|
The American political system has changed enough, at a structural level, that Trump can’t expect to retread the paths that any of these men took. And why would he want to? Only one of them successfully made it back to the White House. Still, the broad circumstances surrounding a trio of presidential comeback attempts offer three paths for Trump’s 2024 campaign. Like Grant in 1880, Trump could attract ample support for his party’s nomination but ultimately fall short after a majority of Republicans coalesce around an opponent. Alternatively, after seeking his party’s nomination, Trump could abandon the GOP and launch a third-party bid, as Roosevelt did in 1912. Or Trump could win his party’s nomination, as Cleveland did in 1892 — and maybe even reclaim the White House.
Trump’s Best-Case Scenario
If Trump could choose to be in the same shoes as anyone come January 2025, it’d be those of Grover Cleveland, the only person ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms as president. Cleveland won the presidency in 1884, lost reelection in 1888, then won back the White House in 1892. It’s very hard to say how likely Trump is to win the GOP nomination at this early vantage point, but compared with Cleveland, Trump could have much greater trouble coalescing support from across different factions of his party.
Cleveland’s comeback developed thanks to a vindication of his views on economic policies. Cleveland, a conservative Democrat, narrowly lost reelection to Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888 partly because of his support for lower tariff rates, which Republicans criticized. Two years later, though, Democrats won massive majorities in the House after slamming the excesses of the “Billion Dollar Congress” and connecting rising prices to higher tariffs. Buoyed by the role his core issues played in the 1890 midterm campaign, Cleveland began a comeback bid. His main rival for the Democratic nomination would be Sen. David Hill, a fellow New Yorker who embraced a more pro-silver, inflationary approach to monetary policy — a key divide within the party — whereas Cleveland opposed weakening gold as the prime guarantor of the dollar’s value.
But Cleveland’s profile as a reformer in an era of graft and machine politics also contrasted sharply with Hill, whose reputation as a machine politician loomed as a potential weakness with general-election voters. By the time of the June national convention, Cleveland had become the front-runner, and on the convention’s first ballot, he won enough to surpass the two-thirds share necessary to win the nomination. Cleveland went on to defeat Harrison in a rematch of the previous general election, albeit with just 46 percent of the national popular vote, as Harrison led a divided GOP — he’d struggled to win renomination — and third-party efforts by the Populist and Prohibition parties combined to win 11 percent, somewhat scrambling the electoral map.
Cleveland’s successful comeback offers a precedent — and hope — for Trump’s 2024 campaign. One broad similarity between the two is that Trump, like Cleveland, has remained his party’s most high-profile leader after losing a close presidential election. Trump’s reshaping of the GOP may not win him the 2024 Republican nomination — but it’s certainly not to the detriment of his candidacy. Under and since Trump’s presidency, the Republican Party’s congressional membership has changed substantially, and its members are more aligned with Trump’s style of politics. Similarly, more than half of the Republican National Committee’s membership has changed since Trump won the GOP nod in 2016, thanks to an exodus of old-school “establishment” Republicans. Among the broader electorate, a tad less than 40 percent of Republicans have told The Economist/YouGov in most recent surveys that they identify as a “MAGA Republican,” compared with a little more than 45 percent who didn’t. While larger, that latter group may still embrace some of Trump’s anti-establishment and combative approach that other Republicans have used to great effect.
However, Trump and Cleveland do differ in some critical respects. For one thing, Cleveland’s standing ahead of the 1892 election improved after his party’s showing in the 1890 midterms; by contrast, Trump’s image has taken a hit in the wake of the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms — highlighted by the defeat of many Trump-endorsed candidates in key Senate races. Additionally, concerns about Hill’s electability in the general election also helped Cleveland build widespread support — even among pro-silver southern and western Democrats — but Trump might suffer because of worries about his general-election chances. Recent polls suggest another Republican, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, might be a stronger general-election contender against President Biden; although the value of such polls this far from November 2024 is highly suspect, donors and party activists are certainly looking at them.
At the same time, Trump has something going for him that Cleveland didn’t: the primary process. Trump doesn’t necessarily need to even win electoral majorities in presidential primaries to win a majority of his party’s delegates. In 2016, the GOP’s preference for primaries and caucuses that were “winner-take-all” — or at least “winner-take-most” — helped Trump win the Republican nomination even though he won only pluralities of the vote in most contests against a crowded field of opponents. We might be headed for a sequel if a sizable number of candidates decide to run in the 2024 Republican contest.
Falling Just Short
It is entirely possible, on the other hand, that a majority — or larger plurality — of Republicans will coalesce around one of Trump’s opponents, an outcome that would broadly parallel Ulysses Grant’s failed bid for the GOP nomination in 1880. Given the two politicians’ factional support and critics’ concerns about electability, it is the Grant comparison that arguably looms largest for Trump among those we’re examining here.
The preeminent hero of the Civil War, Grant left the White House in 1877 after serving two terms. But his image had suffered from his administration’s myriad corruption scandals as well as his association with the turbulent Reconstruction…
Read More:How Donald Trump’s Unusual Presidential Comeback Could Go