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Has an incumbent president ever been defeated in his party’s primary election?

by | Feb 7, 2019 | Blog, Q & A

editor’s note: A recent New York Times story mentioned the possibility of a Republican challenge to President Donald Trump in the 2020 primaries. This made us wonder, has an incumbent president ever been defeated in the primaries?

History professor Patrick Williams answers:

The short answer is no, certainly not in modern times. However, since states began using primaries in the early 1900s, there have times when it could have happened. It nearly did to William Howard Taft in 1912. Theodore Roosevelt was clearly preferred by Republican primary voters, but primaries didn’t dictate nominations back then. Taft controlled the party machinery, and he was re-nominated — only to have Roosevelt challenge (and outpoll) him as a third-party candidate. (Roosevelt ran on the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” ticket.) Both Roosevelt and Taft eventually lost to Woodrow Wilson in the general election. This was the only time an incumbent president came in third in the general election. (In fact, Taft received fewer votes than Socialist candidate Eugene Debs in seven states).

In the 19th century, before primaries, there were a number of presidents who had become so unpopular that they were not re-nominated by their parties. This happened to John Tyler in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1856, James Buchanan in 1860 and Grover Cleveland in 1896. (And then there was Andrew Johnson, who was more Democrat than Republican by 1868 but wasn’t nominated by either party.) But, as I said, this was before there were primaries, and, of these incumbents, only Pierce seems to have entertained any hopes of re-nomination. (Tyler had some thought that his erstwhile opponents, the Democrats, might take him up, but alas, no). The rest more or less conceded that they had become box-office poison.

Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams

Professor of History

Patrick Williams is editor of Arkansas Historical Quarterly and author of Beyond Redemption: Texas Democrats after Reconstruction, published in 2007. He teaches courses focused on American political parties and the United States between 1876 and 1917.

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