Barring some spectacle in their defeat, history generally does not remember losers nearly as well as it remembers winners — and perhaps nowhere is this more true than in U.S. presidential elections.
For example, Abraham Lincoln is widely considered the most well-regarded president of all time, but few know the names of the politicians he defeated in the polls in order to land the job, twice. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another highly regarded president, squared off against four separate Republican challengers on the campaign trail, and buried them in the dust of history.
But without a challenger to step to the podium, without an opposition party of some form, the Democratic system would fall apart. Unfortunately, at some point during the 1970s, it became so unfashionable to lose presidential elections that losers appear obligated to give up the chase if they didn’t get it on the first go. In honor of those who tried, failed, tried again, and failed again — here are five presidential candidates who wouldn’t let one (or two) defeats stand in the way.
1. William Jennings Bryan (Democratic Party)
The look on the face of the man sitting down on the right side of the picture pretty much sums up the political career of presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran for the office of President three times and failed each one of them — but to his credit, at least he did it with style. Bryan was really the first presidential candidate to actually travel around the country and speak directly to the people.
2. Eugene Debs (American Socialist Party)
Outside of those versed in the history of the U.S. labor movement, Eugene Debs is probably best known for two things: running for president five times, and doing so once from a jail cell.
The grossly abridged version of the story is this: Debs, a pacifist, gave a speech in 1918 that was interpreted to be anti-war. He was sentenced to jail for 10 years under the Espionage Act. In 1920, after four unsuccessful campaigns for president as the nation’s socialist candidate (including a historic campaign against President Woodrow Wilson in 1912), his party nominated him yet again. He won over 1 million votes in the election despite the fact that he was locked in a penitentiary.
3. Norman Thomas (American Socialist Party)
Norman Thomas is another notable presidential hopeful from the American Socialist Party. Thomas ran for the office of President six times between 1928 and 1948, squaring off against President Franklin D. Roosevelt four of those times (along with, by this point, a motley crew of tertiary political parties). The following is some footage from the National Archives of Thomas on an old program called Longines Chronoscope.
4. Thomas Dewey (Republican Party)
Thomas Dewey ran as the Republican candidate for President of the United States twice, in 1944 against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1948 against President Harry S. Truman.
Perhaps the most memorable thing to come out of his second defeat was that he was actually favored to win by pretty much everybody. The Chicago Daily Tribune actually printed newspapers with the prediction, which turned out to be hilariously wrong. President Truman (pictured above holding an issue of the paper) was clearly amused.
5. Adlai Stevenson (Democratic Party)
Although Dewey was never president, he did help President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon defeat presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson two times in a row in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson was arguably the last presidential candidate whose reputation was able to go “untarnished by defeat.” He was, by all accounts, a great man who couldn’t stand up to the Republican political powerhouse that carried President Eisenhower into office.
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