Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > These Six Lost Presidential Elections, but Found Other Ways to Serve the Nation

Dec 3, 2020

These Six Lost Presidential Elections, but Found Other Ways to Serve the Nation

tags: presidential history,presidential elections

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


Although they failed to win the White House, six losing presidential candidates gave many devoted years of public service to the nation before and after their campaigns, and deserve respect and recognition for their contributions.

Only one of these six, Henry Clay of Kentucky, had his distinguished career in the 19th century, while the other five ran for the presidency between 1964 and 2008---Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain.

Henry Clay, often regarded by scholars (including this author) as the greatest senator in American history, had a total of 29 years of government service, including eleven years in the House of Representatives from 1811-1814, 1815-1821, and 1823-1825. During that time he became the youngest Speaker of the House, achieving that position as a freshman congressman in 1811! Clay also served in the US Senate for about fourteen years, including for three months in 1806-1807 before reaching his 30th birthday, a few months in 1810-1811, a bit more than ten years from 1831-1842, and three more years from 1849-1852, the year he passed away at age 75.  Additionally, he served as Secretary of State for President John Quincy Adams from 1825-1829.  And Clay, of course, was a competing presidential candidate in 1824 in a four-way race (he supported Adams when the House of Representatives decided the election), the nominee of the National Republican Party in 1832 against Andrew Jackson, and the nominee of the Whig Party in 1844 against James K. Polk.  Overall, Clay had a very distinguished and exceptional career in American politics, and was one of only two people (with William Jennings Bryan) to be a presidential nominee and loser in three different elections.

After Clay, no one with a similarly long record of public service would lose a presidential election until the second half of the twentieth century, when five long-serving US Senators would lose presidential races. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who assumed the mantle of conservatism in the Republican Party after the death of Ohio’s Robert Taft, made a national reputation for himself and was nominated in 1964 to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Goldwater had served 12 years in the Senate by then, and served another 18 after his massive defeat to Johnson, retiring in 1987 after 30 distinguished years in the Senate.  He also changed his reputation, taking up libertarian positions in support of abortion rights and gay rights, turning a lot of conservatives in his party against him.  He also had shown statesmanship in leading the delegation of Republican leaders to the White House in August 1974 to inform President Richard Nixon that he would not have adequate support from his party to overcome an impeachment trial.

Just as Goldwater ran as “Mr. Conservative” in 1964, “Mr. Liberal,” Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, was the nominee of his party in 1968, after a distinguished Senate career from 1949 through 1964, and four years of service as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. Humphrey led a party deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, and lost to Richard Nixon.  He returned to the Senate and served seven more years until his death in January 1978. Overall he had served 23 years in the Senate, four as vice president. Counting his and earlier term as Mayor of Minneapolis from 1945-1948, Humphrey served a total 30 years in public office, equal to Goldwater.

Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas had a longer career than either Goldwater or Humphrey, as he served in the House of Representatives from 1961-1969 and as a US Senator from 1969 to mid-1996, when he resigned to run against Bill Clinton. So Dole served a total of 35.5 years in Congress.  He was the running mate of President Gerald R. Ford in 1976, and served as Senate Majority Leader twice (from 1985-1987 and 1995-1996) and as Minority Leader (1987-1995). Dole was the Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1971-1973.  He remains at this writing a distinguished elder statesman in his party at age 97.

Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has had a public career of 34 years, including most recently as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s second term from 2013-2017. Kerry’s public career began with two years as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts from 1983-1985, followed by 28 years in the US Senate from 1985-2013, including service as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee from 2009-2013. He resigned then to work for Barack Obama in the State Department.  Kerry ran a competitive campaign against President George W. Bush in 2004; although the electoral vote was close, Bush prevailed as the only Republican candidate to win the popular vote in seven elections from 1992 through 2020, and Kerry returned to the Senate. Kerry’s career in public service is likely to continue, as he has been named by President-Elect Joe Biden to oversee national policy on climate change.

Finally, in 2008, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona challenged incumbent Barack Obama, having previously been a strong contender for the Republican nomination in 2000.  McCain had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years. A decade after his return from the war, he became a member of the House of Representatives for two terms from 1983-1987, then a US Senator for 32 years from 1987 until his passing in 2018.  So, above his service to the nation, he represented his state for a total of nearly 36 years.

So these six losing presidential candidates, despite their defeats, go down in American history as true statesmen, who fought the good fight and contributed a great deal to their country, with McCain serving nearly 36 years; Dole 35.5 years; Kerry 34 years; Humphrey 30 years; Goldwater 30 years, and Clay 29 years. Kerry, of course, could eventually amass the longest record of service among the presidential losers by serving the Biden administration as “climate czar.”

They join the five presidential “winners”---John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford, and now Joe Biden in having done so much good service for the nation they loved!

comments powered by Disqus