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Most Candidates Take The Hint After Two Losses. Why Won’t Beto O’Rourke and Charlie Crist?

UPDATE (September 20, 2021, 3:56 p.m.): Over the weekend, Axios reported that former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke will announce his plans to run for Texas governor later this year. So far, no high-profile Texas Democrat has said they’ll challenge Gov. Greg Abbott, but O’Rourke — if he enters the race — could face long odds, as he will be coming off an unsuccessful Democratic presidential campaign in 2019 and a loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

Read more on why candidates who’ve already lost two elections don’t usually run again.

On paper, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and current Florida Rep. Charlie Crist have little in common. The former, a somewhat progressive three-term Democratic House member with a failed presidential bid, is reportedly mulling a gubernatorial run in Texas. The latter, a former Republican, is hoping to reclaim his old office in the Florida governor’s mansion — this time as a Democrat — by challenging Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis. But both O’Rourke and Crist are risking their political credibility if they run again and lose, as they’ve already failed to win two consecutive runs for office. Even worse, they could be marked as perennial candidates. And given the track record of candidates who have already had multiple unsuccessful bids for higher office, both men are facing uphill climbs.

For starters, candidates who’ve lost just once — let alone twice — often don’t have much better luck the next go-around. We looked at candidates who’ve run for U.S. Senate, governor or president after they lost just one election and then tried to run again and found that since 1998, only 33 of 121 of them have managed to win higher office after having lost once.1 Losses transcended political parties, too, with 53 Democrats and 36 Republicans failing in their second attempt.2

In understanding why these 33 candidates were successful the second time around, one pattern stands out: Just over one-third of these candidates were already in office when they tried to seek another seat; specifically, they were all sitting senators with their eyes on the presidency (think Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Cory Booker of New Jersey, to name a few). Another 30 percent were candidates who unsuccessfully ran for one office but successfully ran for another (Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp). And then there were 27 percent who lost their first race but won in a subsequent election for the same office (former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, former Nevada Sen. John Ensign). The last notable trend here is the people who have run for president more than once, winning their party’s primary after previously losing it (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden).3 To be clear, though, neither Clinton nor Biden sought the presidency in back-to-back cycles; these are just the last two elected offices that either sought. (Clinton ran in 2008 and 2016, while Biden ran in 2008 and 2020.) And for Biden specifically, serving as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years may have helped his 2020 bid for president, as he was able to build up both his name recognition and political bona fides.

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But after two failed bids, the numbers get even worse.4 Just 20 people have run for U.S. senator, governor or president after losing two consecutive elections. And only one, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, who won a 2016 runoff race after losing two previous Senate races, was successful. 

That’s why several political scientists I spoke to said that for candidates like O’Rourke and Crist, running a third time after two consecutive losses is a dangerous game. “It is hard for people to run successfully after losing twice,” said Peter Francia, a professor of political science at East Carolina University. “Donors want winners. As a result, fundraising is a challenge. Interest groups want winners. So, endorsements are a challenge. Local, state, and national party organizations are also strategic in where they place their resources. Voters may even grow tired of a perennial candidate.”

In other words, history doesn’t bode well for O’Rourke and Crist, and neither do the polls. It’s too early in the cycle for reliable head-to-head polling, but favorability ratings show that despite being relatively well-known, neither man is terribly popular. An April statewide poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that just 35 percent of registered Texas voters viewed O’Rourke very or somewhat favorably compared with 37 percent who viewed him very or somewhat unfavorably. And in a February Mason-Dixon poll of registered Florida voters, just 27 percent viewed Crist favorably, compared with 41 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

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Plus, if O’Rourke and Crist do run and lose, they’d be in pretty bad company, as people who lose three elections in a row are not considered serious politicians. We found 19 candidates who had lost three or more elections since 1998 per our analysis, and it included trivial presidential candidates like former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Alan Keyes, a former diplomat and radio commentator who ran long-shot bids twice — not to mention a bid for the U.S. Senate, too. Not all candidates started out unserious, though. Former Washington state Sen. Dino Rossi, for instance, was a respected politician who ruined his career by running for office unsuccessfully several times. That said, many who fall into this category are like Paul and Keyes, or Roque De La Fuente, a businessman and car dealership owner who lost so many times on the Republican and Democratic tickets that he’s now a perennial third-party candidate.

The best-case scenario, then, for people like O’Rourke and Crist if they do run again and lose is that they become someone like former state Rep. Cam Cavasso of Hawaii — a respectable politician whose legacy was overshadowed as he gained a reputation as a perennial loser. (Beginning in 1984, Cavasso was elected to three consecutive terms in the Hawaii House but ran for a U.S. Senate seat three times and lost in 2004, 2010 and 2014.)5

“The process of losing tends to label one a loser,” said David Barker, a professor of government at American University. “You start to look like somebody who’s just so ambitious that you don’t care about anything else … and you start to look like a little bit of a fool. If you want to be taken seriously, or seen as someone who cares about the issues, then you find non-political ways to contribute for a while, let some time go by and use that as a springboard for the future.”

Plus, said Barker, having the stain of a loser isn’t good for voter psychology. In fact, one 2015 study by professors at Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard University and UCLA, found that when Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, Republicans’ reported happiness decreased twice as much as the reported happiness of Bostonians after the Boston Marathon bombing and American parents after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. That’s because, the authors note, partisan identity is central to the self and well-being. “[T]he pain of losing an election is much larger than the joy of winning one,” they write. “Election outcomes strongly affect the short-term happiness/sadness of partisan losers, with minimal impact on partisan winners.”

Of course, this hasn’t stopped a lot of candidates from running again, and some of them, like Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have each run for president twice, still have their reputations intact thanks to their political dynasty or passionate fan base. But they’re the exception, not the norm. Most perennial candidates don’t find much political success, and after two consecutive losses, a candidate’s chances of winning get dicey.

In short, Barker said, if voters’ most recent memory of a candidate is two election losses, they may not want to vote for that person again. “They start to view you as desperate,” he said. “You’re like the guy who won’t stop calling after you’ve already told them no.”

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  1. We included all candidates who appeared on a race’s ballot for the U.S. Senate, president (both primaries and general elections) or governor, including write-in candidates who got more than 10 percent of the vote.

  2. Crist is the only candidate in our analysis who has won higher office after having lost once while then going on to lose two other races. As such, we count him in both our analysis of candidates who have managed to win higher office after having lost once and our analysis of candidates who have had two or more consecutive losses.

  3. Technically, Clinton and Biden could fall into our first category of candidates who were already in office when they ran, but because they each held appointed positions in Obama’s administration following their 2008 presidential bids, we’ve put them in their own category.

  4. Only candidates who appeared on a race’s ballot are included, so technically someone like O’Rourke, who dropped out of the 2020 presidential primary in November 2019 and therefore wasn’t on the ballot, wouldn’t be included in this count.

  5. Cavasso was also the GOP nominee for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District in 2018. He lost that election too. He also lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 2002.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Mary Radcliffe is a senior research assistant for FiveThirtyEight.