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Let’s Hear It for the Losers!

by J. Barton Starr on Oct 17, 2000

As Al Gore and George W. Bush fight out these final days in their
battle for the presidency, the arrival of my Florida absentee ballot with
its list of nine presidential candidates reminded me that it is time to
praise the great presidential losers of the American past.

         Yes, the time has come for all true lovers of trivia to stand up
and be counted for the losers. In the spirit of the Millard Fillmore
Society, whose basic purpose is to preserve the anonymity of President
Millard Fillmore, let all the perpetual  pursuers of petty phenomena take
note of this foray into insignificance. Both gone and forgotten,
second-place finishers in the presidential sweepstakes remind us that the
pursuit of ideals, fought heroically against insurmountable odds, is worth
the effort, even if it only warrants a footnote in history.

         Several years ago the editorial page of a daily newspaper stated
that with William Jennings Bryan's third unsuccessful race for the
presidency in 1908, a record was set: "neither before nor since has anybody
been defeated for the presidency three times." Alas, how soon we forget!

         Two other "major party" candidates suffered a similar fate.
Counting only his attempts to attain the presidency as a major candidate,
between 1800 and 1808 Charles Cotesworth Pinckney lost three times as the
nominee of the Federalist Party. For the true devotee of trivia, it should
be noted that he also received one electoral vote in 1796, and therefore
lost four times.

         The second, and more notable, "also-ran" was Henry Clay. Clay was
one of those unfortunate souls in American politics bitten by the
presidential bug who never recovered from the consequent fever. He
unsuccessfully attempted to gain the presidency in 1824, 1832 and 1844.
Clay also attempted to win the Whig Party's nomination in 1840 because the
political experts felt that anybody could beat the depression-plagued
Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren ("Little Van, the Used-Up Man"). They
were right; "anybody" was nominated and eventually won the election;
William Henry Harrison ("Old Tippecanoe") served as president exactly one
month before dying of age, exhaustion and pneumonia.

         If Clay felt betrayed, he would have a great deal of company as a
perennial also-ran. Other men ran for the highest office in the land with
luck equal to or even worse than that of Pinckney or Clay. Who could ever
forget William Z. Foster who ran three times for the Workers' Party and the
Communist Party?  Or how about that three-time candidate of the Socialist
Workers' Party, Farrell Dobbs? Or the quadruple loser on the Socialist
Labor Party ticket, Eric Haas?

         One of the more interesting all-time losers was prisoner No. 2253
who in 1920 was serving a ten-year sentence for violation of the Espionage
Act.  While in prison, Eugene V. Debs ran for the fifth time for president
as the Socialist Party candidate and received nearly a million votes.
Together, Foster, Dobbs, Haas and Debs polled a combined total of zero
electoral votes.

         The man who was the real winner of the losers was none of these
but the persistent Norman Thomas, who did more than anyone else to put
third-party losers on the political map of the United States. Between 1928
and 1948 he headed the Socialist Party ticket six times and received no
electoral votes.

         There are other ways of counting losers besides looking at the
final outcome. Some candidates in American political history not only lost,
but lost spectacularly. William Howard Taft served as president from 1909
until 1913, but in the election of 1912 he suffered the worst defeat ever
by an incumbent president. His total: 8 of 531 electoral votes.

         Other candidates shared Taft's fate in the electoral count. In
1804 the perennial also-ran Charles Cotesworth Pinckney received only 14
electoral votes in his bid to unseat Thomas Jefferson. To find any other
major party candidate who suffered such humiliation, one has to look at the
20th century.  In his attempt to defeat the New Deal of Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Governor Alfred M. Landon received only eight electoral votes.
Richard Nixon handily defeated George McGovern in 1972 when McGovern earned
only 17 electoral votes out of a total of 537, still beating Walter
Mondale's total of 13 out of 538 in the election of 1984.

       For there to be a winner in any election, obviously there must also
be at least one loser. The candidates mentioned here joined the ranks of
many other prominent men and are distinguished only by the fact that they
"lost big." It is easy to belittle their campaigns, but remember that these
men were dedicated to their ideals and strove to attain the presidency in
order to implement them. In light of the heroic record of these perpetual
aspirants to the presidency, the time is long past to give them the
recognition they deserve. Be it ever so late, with the enthusiasm of the
Procrastinators Society: Let's hear it for the losers!

J. Barton Starr is associate vice president and academic dean (humanities and social sciences); chair professor of history; and director of international programs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.