How Donald Trump’s Unusual Presidential Comeback Could Go
History presents three possible paths.
“I am not a candidate.
I will not become a candidate.
I will support the nominee of my party with all the energy I have.”
With this, former President Gerald Ford announced in March 1980 that he would not make a late entrance into the Republican presidential nomination race after long teasing a potential bid. For decades, this marked the nearest any former president had come to seeking a return to the White House in the modern political era — until former President Donald Trump announced his presidential bid in November.
Trump’s comeback campaign is unprecedented since the contemporary nomination system took shape in the 1970s.1 Yet in the broader history of presidential elections, his comeback effort is unusual — but not unheard of. Former presidents like Martin Van Buren, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt each mounted serious post-presidency campaigns to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue between 1844 and 1912. In fact, five former presidents have won at least some delegates at major-party national conventions, as the table below shows.2
Trump isn’t the first former president to attempt a comeback
Former presidents who won delegate support at a major party’s national convention
|Year||Party||Former president||Largest delegate %||Won nomination|
|1844||D||Martin Van Buren*||54.9%|
The American political system has changed enough, at a structural level, that Trump can’t expect to retread the paths that any of these men took. And why would he want to? Only one of them successfully made it back to the White House. Still, the broad circumstances surrounding a trio of presidential comeback attempts offer three paths for Trump’s 2024 campaign. Like Grant in 1880, Trump could attract ample support for his party’s nomination but ultimately fall short after a majority of Republicans coalesce around an opponent. Alternatively, after seeking his party’s nomination, Trump could abandon the GOP and launch a third-party bid, as Roosevelt did in 1912. Or Trump could win his party’s nomination, as Cleveland did in 1892 — and maybe even reclaim the White House.
Trump’s Best-Case Scenario
If Trump could choose to be in the same shoes as anyone come January 2025, it’d be those of Grover Cleveland, the only person ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms as president. Cleveland won the presidency in 1884, lost reelection in 1888, then won back the White House in 1892. It’s very hard to say how likely Trump is to win the GOP nomination at this early vantage point, but compared with Cleveland, Trump could have much greater trouble coalescing support from across different factions of his party.
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Cleveland’s comeback developed thanks to a vindication of his views on economic policies. Cleveland, a conservative Democrat, narrowly lost reelection to Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888 partly because of his support for lower tariff rates, which Republicans criticized. Two years later, though, Democrats won massive majorities in the House after slamming the excesses of the “Billion Dollar Congress” and connecting rising prices to higher tariffs.3 Buoyed by the role his core issues played in the 1890 midterm campaign, Cleveland began a comeback bid. His main rival for the Democratic nomination would be Sen. David Hill, a fellow New Yorker who embraced a more pro-silver, inflationary approach to monetary policy — a key divide within the party — whereas Cleveland opposed weakening gold as the prime guarantor of the dollar’s value.
But Cleveland’s profile as a reformer in an era of graft and machine politics also contrasted sharply with Hill, whose reputation as a machine politician loomed as a potential weakness with general-election voters. By the time of the June national convention, Cleveland had become the front-runner, and on the convention’s first ballot, he won enough to surpass the two-thirds share necessary to win the nomination.4 Cleveland went on to defeat Harrison in a rematch of the previous general election, albeit with just 46 percent of the national popular vote, as Harrison led a divided GOP — he’d struggled to win renomination — and third-party efforts by the Populist and Prohibition parties combined to win 11 percent, somewhat scrambling the electoral map.
Cleveland’s successful comeback offers a precedent — and hope — for Trump’s 2024 campaign. One broad similarity between the two is that Trump, like Cleveland, has remained his party’s most high-profile leader after losing a close presidential election. Trump’s reshaping of the GOP may not win him the 2024 Republican nomination — but it’s certainly not to the detriment of his candidacy. Under and since Trump’s presidency, the Republican Party’s congressional membership has changed substantially, and its members are more aligned with Trump’s style of politics. Similarly, more than half of the Republican National Committee’s membership has changed since Trump won the GOP nod in 2016, thanks to an exodus of old-school “establishment” Republicans. Among the broader electorate, a tad less than 40 percent of Republicans have told The Economist/YouGov in most recent surveys that they identify as a “MAGA Republican,” compared with a little more than 45 percent who didn’t. While larger, that latter group may still embrace some of Trump’s anti-establishment and combative approach that other Republicans have used to great effect.
However, Trump and Cleveland do differ in some critical respects. For one thing, Cleveland’s standing ahead of the 1892 election improved after his party’s showing in the 1890 midterms; by contrast, Trump’s image has taken a hit in the wake of the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms — highlighted by the defeat of many Trump-endorsed candidates in key Senate races. Additionally, concerns about Hill’s electability in the general election also helped Cleveland build widespread support — even among pro-silver southern and western Democrats — but Trump might suffer because of worries about his general-election chances. Recent polls suggest another Republican, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, might be a stronger general-election contender against President Biden; although the value of such polls this far from November 2024 is highly suspect, donors and party activists are certainly looking at them.
At the same time, Trump has something going for him that Cleveland didn’t: the primary process. Trump doesn’t necessarily need to even win electoral majorities in presidential primaries to win a majority of his party’s delegates. In 2016, the GOP’s preference for primaries and caucuses that were “winner-take-all” — or at least “winner-take-most” — helped Trump win the Republican nomination even though he won only pluralities of the vote in most contests against a crowded field of opponents. We might be headed for a sequel if a sizable number of candidates decide to run in the 2024 Republican contest.
Falling Just Short
It is entirely possible, on the other hand, that a majority — or larger plurality — of Republicans will coalesce around one of Trump’s opponents, an outcome that would broadly parallel Ulysses Grant’s failed bid for the GOP nomination in 1880. Given the two politicians’ factional support and critics’ concerns about electability, it is the Grant comparison that arguably looms largest for Trump among those we’re examining here.
The preeminent hero of the Civil War, Grant left the White House in 1877 after serving two terms. But his image had suffered from his administration’s myriad corruption scandals as well as his association with the turbulent Reconstruction era and a deep economic depression. Grant’s successor, Republican Rutherford Hayes, didn’t seek reelection, and favorable press coverage of Grant’s two-year world tour resuscitated his profile as the 1880 election neared. Grant had support from a faction of the GOP led by a group of political bosses, but he also faced substantial opposition within a party that had lost its once-dominant position following the Civil War. Many Republicans worried that he would struggle to unify the GOP, given his administration’s scandals and the fractures that had developed within the party during his presidency.
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Like Grant, Trump remains relatively popular among those in his party: His favorability among Republicans sits in the low 70s in Civiqs’s tracking poll, while only around 15 percent have an unfavorable view of him. While he’s lost ground in recent national primary polls, Trump still leads DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence — Trump’s most-polled potential opponents — with a plurality across most surveys. And again like Grant, Trump also has received some early backing from Republican officials in Congress and around the country, a departure from Trump’s first run back in 2016.
But one potentially critical difference is that Trump could benefit from his party’s delegate rules — just as he did winning pluralities in the 2016 primaries — whereas Grant ended up losing in part because a pivotal rules decision went against him. At the 1880 Republican National Convention, the anti-Grant faction — which was larger than the pro-Grant group — defeated implementation of the “unit rule,” which would’ve required delegates to vote for the candidate preferred by most of their state’s delegation. Grant’s backers had supported the proposal, which would’ve been analogous to a winner-take-all primary in some delegate-rich states where Grant had the most support, putting him close to the majority necessary for the nomination.
And unlike in modern times, the classic convention setting also gave Grant’s opponents a chance to find an alternative choice — even one who wasn’t actively seeking the presidency. After 35 ballots, as no candidate managed to overtake Grant, some delegates began turning to Ohio Rep. James Garfield, who had earlier made a strong impression when he gave a nominating speech for another candidate. Sensing things were turning toward Garfield and wanting to avoid Grant’s nomination at all costs, Grant’s main opponents called for their delegates to back Garfield on the 36th ballot. As the vote came down, Grant again captured more than 300 votes, but Garfield won 399, a majority that earned him the party’s nomination and blocked Grant’s comeback.
However, as with Grant, many current Republican leaders, donors and voters would like to turn the page on the Trump era in the face of the former president’s struggles in the 2022 midterms, as well as legal proceedings concerning his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his business interests, his personal life and his alleged mishandling of classified documents. Similarly, a majority of Republicans could rally around a Trump alternative, such as DeSantis, whose strengthening poll numbers, support from party leaders and plaudits from conservative media could make him the most likely preference for Trump opponents.
The Third-Party Option
Last and definitely least likely, Trump could leave the Republican primary race and run as a third-party candidate in 2024. Such a move would undoubtedly bring to mind comparisons with another former president who opted to run outside the two-party system after losing his party’s nomination: Teddy Roosevelt, whose unsuccessful run in 1912 remains the strongest performance by a third-party presidential candidate in U.S. history.5
Roosevelt became president following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, and then won four more years in 1904. But having promised not to run again, Roosevelt positioned his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1908. Out of office, however, Roosevelt became frustrated with Taft’s more conservative governing approach, and the Republican Party’s divisions and losses in the 1910 midterms created space for a Taft opponent — one Roosevelt filled when he decided to challenge Taft in the 1912 Republican nomination race.
The ensuing campaign broke new ground as some states (13 in all) would select most of their convention delegates via a presidential primary. Roosevelt had previously expressed skepticism toward primaries, but he embraced the popular movement to create direct primaries and encouraged many states to implement them as it became apparent they were the only way he could gain more delegates than Taft, whose allies controlled the party machinery in states where delegates would be picked by local and state conventions. In an unprecedented, popular campaign for president, Roosevelt ended up dominating at the ballot box: He won the popular vote in nine of the 12 primaries that had results, garnering 52 percent to Taft’s 34 percent overall.6 However, heading into the 1912 GOP convention, Roosevelt’s primary success couldn’t win the nomination on its own: Only about 2 in 5 Republican delegates came from the primary states (in 2016, that figure was about 4 in 5). Taft’s allies also controlled the convention committees, including the credentials committee, which backed the Taft-supporting delegates on most of the numerous credentials challenges that had resulted from the contentious campaign. Taft narrowly won the nomination on the first ballot, so Roosevelt’s campaign decided to implement the third-party option.
Third-party bids usually struggle, but Roosevelt’s Progressive Party — often called the Bull Moose Party — had both serious financial support and proof of popular support demonstrated by his showing in the GOP primaries. In November, Roosevelt went on to win 27 percent of the popular vote to Taft’s 23 percent. But because Roosevelt and Taft largely split the Republican vote, Democrat Woodrow Wilson easily won the presidency with just 42 percent.
Teddy Roosevelt lost but set a record for third-party vote share
Third-party candidates for president who won at least 5 percent of the national popular vote, 1832 to present
|1860||John Breckinridge||Southern Dem.||18.2|
|1924||Robert La Follette||Progressive||16.6|
|1968||George Wallace||American Ind.||13.5|
|1860||John Bell||Const. Union||12.6|
|1848||Martin Van Buren||Free Soil||10.1|
As with Cleveland and Grant, the political circumstances surrounding Trump and Roosevelt differ on many fronts. For one thing, in the 2024 campaign, Trump won’t face an incumbent from his own party like Roosevelt did. Trump will also have far more access than Roosevelt to winning support through primaries, as those contests determined only a minority of delegates at the 1912 GOP convention. But if Trump were to actually pursue a third-party bid, he’d likely have to make that choice much earlier in 2024 than Roosevelt had to in 1912, thanks to more rigorous and time-sensitive requirements for qualifying for the general-election ballot across the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
But while the idea of a Trump third-party bid is unlikely, we can’t completely laugh it off. After all, he has repeatedly raised the prospect himself, most recently in late December when he shared on his social media platform an article from a pro-Trump website advocating such a move. This is in keeping with a long-running pattern: Following the 2020 election, Trump talked of a new “Patriot Party” or “MAGA Party,” and during the 2016 cycle, Trump complained of being treated unfairly by the GOP hierarchy and suggested he might attempt an independent bid. Although this has perhaps been a bargaining tactic — a split GOP vote would all but guarantee victory for Democrats — it’s also true that a Trump third-party bid could win a significant number of votes. More plainly, Trump has often claimed that political opponents are conspiring against him. Roosevelt may have had more cause for such feelings in the face of Taft’s control of the convention in 1912, but Roosevelt famously summed up his new party’s platform as “thou shalt not steal.”
Today’s presidential primary is night and day from the smoke-filled rooms and convention politics that decided the nominations 100-plus years ago. However, one thing remains true: The rules of the nomination, and how campaigns respond to them, matter. Cleveland won because he managed to unify the party sufficiently — including support from those who disagreed with him on silver — to win the two-thirds majority required by the Democrats. Grant failed in large part because his campaign couldn’t outplay the anti-Grant faction to enact the “unit rule.” And while Roosevelt won smashing victories in the primaries, that wasn’t the main mode of delegate selection yet, and his campaign’s inability to make sufficient inroads in caucus-convention states cost him the nomination. For Trump in 2024, the party’s delegate rules necessitate winning (at least) pluralities in primaries in the early and middle part of the nomination calendar to build up a delegate lead and to push out rivals. He did it once before — it remains to be seen whether the GOP’s anti-Trump forces can outmaneuver him this time around.
Story editing by Maya Sweedler. Copy editing by Andrew Mangan. Photo research by Emily Scherer.