Rate the Losers: A Game to Teach Students Important Lessons of History

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Mr. Cook is an independent historian. He lives in Ohio.


Whether it is Dave Letterman, the History Channel, professional historians, pollsters or sports writers, we seem to have a fascination with itemizing the ten best of this, the five worst of that.

While list making is by no means an historical enterprise in and of itself, some list making can provide an educational opportunity for further research or productive counterfactual reasoning.

The ever popular listing of the best and worst American Presidents, however, has from a student's viewpoint, a significant disadvantage: the favorite, popular and obvious choices have already been made. How can a student argue with Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eisenhower?

On the other hand, an exercise that evaluates losing presidential election candidates confronts the historical question of why did they lose and the counterfactual question of what would it have meant if they had won.

The game or exercise I suggest below can be used as a classroom exercise, a research paper topic or a stand-alone take-home exercise.

Let's Play "Rate the Losers"

What if America's presidential elections had not come out the way they did? Would those who ran and lost have made "good" presidents? Have the voters and this system always been the best of judges? How would a losing candidate made a better, worse or different president? Or would it have mattered at all?

Let's see.

Below, by election year, I have listed all of the major presidential election losers. Some, obviously, lost only to be elected president in a subsequent election or were a sitting president who lost. They are marked with an asterisk. However, they may be evaluated for the year in which they lost.

Numerous minor candidates have not been included, but see my notes at the end of the table for a more advanced version of this game.

After you study the list, rank the best five and the worst five. What, had they won, would have been different about their term and how, if at all, would that have changed the course of American history?

*Incumbent or ex-president


This chart calls attention to only the most notable or significant candidates and does not include any of their running mates, if they had them.

For example Harry Browne who ran for President in 1996 on the Liberta

rian Party (0.50% of the popular vote) is not listed. Norman Thomas ran on the Socialist Party ticket in every election from 1928 to 1944 but only once, in 1932, received over 2% of the popular vote is also not listed, but in a more advanced version of the exercise could be.

Moreover, one could rank the lesser candidates as well as all losing candidates with their vice-presidents (for those who ran on a dual ticket).

For example, had Henry Clay defeated James K. Polk in 1844 and had Clay died in office, what sort of President would Clay's running mate, Theodore Frelinghuysen (Whig, N.J.) have made?

Or let us say Wallace wins in 1968, dies in office the following year and is succeeded by his third party running mate, Curtis LeMay? How, if at all, would that have influenced the end of the Vietnam War?

I have retained Horace Greeley (1872) even though had he won he would not have served because he dies prior to the inaugural, although his vice-presidential running mate, Governor Benjamin Gratz of Missouri would most likely have been chosen by the Democratic Party to succeed him. Even so, it suggests some questions about the issues of 1872.

Players for advanced versions are invited to construct their own charts. However, players must abide by the rules of historical accuracy and their defenses or explanations must be in the form of reasonable historical arguments.

For "extra credit," students may be asked to write or in an oral presentation defend or debunk the following well-known quote:

"Great men are not chosen president, firstly because great men are rare in politics; secondly, because the method of choice does not bring them to the top; thirdly, because they are not, in quiet times, absolutely necessary." -- James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (1888)

YearLosing Candidate
1789 *John Adams
1792*John Adams
George Clinton
1796Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Pinckney
Aaron Burr
1800Aaron Burr
*John Adams
Charles C. Pinckney
John Jay
1804Charles C. Pinckney
1808Charles C. Pinckney
George Clinton
1812DeWitt Clinton
1816Rufus King
1820*John Quincy Adams
1824*Andrew Jackson
Henry Clay
William H. Crawford
1828*John Quincy Adams
1832Henry Clay
William Wirt
John Floyd
1836*William H. Harrison
Hugh L. White
Daniel Webster
W. P. Mangum
1840*Martin Van Buren
1844Henry Clay
James G. Birney
1848Lewis Cass
*Martin Van Buren
1852Winfield Scott
John P. Hale
1856John C. Fremont
Millard Fillmore
1860Stephen A. Douglas
John C. Breckinridge
John Bell
1864George B. McClellan
1868Horatio Seymour
1872Horace Greeley
1876Samuel J. Tilden
1880Winfield S. Hancock
James B. Weaver
1884James G. Blaine
1888*Grover Cleveland
1892*Benjamin Harrison
James B. Weaver
1896William J. Bryan
1900William J. Bryan
1904Alton B. Parker
Eugene V. Debs
1908William J. Bryan
Eugene V. Debs
1912*Theodore Roosevelt
*William H. Taft
Eugene V. Debs
1916Charles E. Hughes
A. L. Benson

James Cox
Eugene V. Debs

1924John W. Davis
Robert M. LaFollette
1928Alfred E. Smith
1932*Herbert Hoover
1936Alfred M. Landon
1940Wendell L. Wilkie
1944Thomas E. Dewey
1948Thomas E. Dewey
1952Adlai E. Stevenson
1956Adlai E. Stevenson
1960*Richard Nixon
1964 Barry Goldwater
1968Hubert H. Humphrey
George C. Wallace
1972George S. McGovern
1976*Gerald R. Ford
1980*Jimmy Carter
1984Walter Mondale
1988Michael Dukakis
1992*George H.W. Bush
H. Ross Perot
1996Bob Dole
H. Ross Perot
2000Albert Gore

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to the editorial advice of Mr. Michael Calvin, who played a draft version of this exercise with verve and enthusiasm.

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More Comments:

Buster - 8/10/2003

When did America choose the wrong guy ? Well, let's say before 1980.

1. 1976-Ford was an ok president, Carter was awful. We clearly chose the wrong guy.

2. 1968-HHH was no world beater but he was better than Nixon.

3. 1924-John W. Davis had better credentials then Cal on foreign policy.

4. 1920-Cox would have been much better than Harding on just about anything.

5. 1852-Scott was bad. Pierce was much worse.


1952, 1956-Adlai is overrated. Big time. He had no commitment to civil rights.

1944, 1948-Dewey would have been a solid president but FDR and HST were much better.

1940-Wilkie would have been a solid president in 1940 but FDR would have been better.

1928-Smith is overrated. Remember he is a hopeless Libery Leaguer by the 30s. I don't think he would have been a step up from Hoover.

1916-Hughes would have been a fine president and maybe better than Wilson in that 2nd term.

1880-Hancock was a fine soldier but who knows how he would do compared to Garfied or Arthur. His tenure as governor in Reconstruction is not promising.

1876-Tiden was solid. So was Hayes. A toss up.

1872-Greely was awful. Worse than Grant.

1868-Seymor would have abandoned Reconstruction so is not a step up from Grant.

1864-McClellan would have been a solid president in 1880 after his tenure in NJ. 1864 was not his time.

1856-Fremont was hopeless as he showed in the War. Fillmore was competent but as a Know Nothing would have had debts to pay to his own party.

Clay would have a great president but lost to better men in 1844 and 1832.

Dave Smith - 5/10/2003

In 1988 GHW Bush was not the loser, but the winner, he did of course lose in 1992 against Clinton, but he won in 1988.

Josh Anderson - 1/7/2003

I don't know how old this is, since I just stumbled across it to answer a bet, but why is George H.W. listed as a loser in 1988? I know I'm no historian, but I'm pretty sure he won that election (sarcasm intended). Do you just not like him? I was no great fan of former President Bush (nor am I a huge fan of the current Bush), but I would say that there have been worse Presidents. I'm sure Mike Dukakis appreciates the omission though.