Is Trump the Way Forward for the GOP?

by Caroline Sutton

Illustration by Herman Jönsson

Nearly two months after former President Trump left the White House, a steady debate remains superimposed over every level of Republican politics. How much influence should Trump hold over the GOP now that he is out of office? 

Republican voters are solidly behind the former president, with recent polling showing 81% of registered Republicans hold a favorable view of him and 51% backing him in the 2024 presidential primary—making him the only candidate to crack double digit support. 

Another camp, associated with donors and establishment leaders like Senator Mitt Romney and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would like to largely ignore the former president and move away from his vision for the party as soon as possible. Perhaps the largest block of elected Republicans—those like Senator Lindsey Graham—would like to channel Trump energy while condemning the more extreme aspects of his legacy. 

Trump, for his part, has sent mixed signals about his future with the GOP. He ruled out a third-party run during his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) but has called for his small-donor, grassroots supporters to give directly to him, rather than the Republican Party proper. There remains little doubt that Trump will attempt to influence the larger political landscape through his hold on the Republican base, and many believe he will run for the presidency again in 2024. 

Trump White House Archive

The tea leaves seem to read that Trump will continue to dominate Republican politics for years to come. But Trump is hardly the first ex-president who felt like his time in politics wasn’t over after leaving the White House. There have been four other presidents in American history who sought the highest office in the land again after leaving. How they fared  in their second attempt at the presidency and how they influenced their party can give us insights into the next few years of Republican politics. 

Martin Van Buren: A Gifted Politician Unable to Overcome a Bad Economy

Martin Van Buren, who held the presidency from 1837 to 1841, had perhaps the most dissimilar background to Mr. Trump. Born in 1782, Van Buren had a long career in politics—serving as governor of New York, Andrew Jackson’s vice president, and secretary of state—before finally ascending to the nation’s highest office. He won, not by riding in on a populist wave, but by maintaining a strong friendship and political alliance with Andrew Jackson and running as his chosen successor

Once in office, historians generally agree that Van Buren was unsuccessful. The nation took an economic downturn eight months into his term that would last for the remainder of his presidency, and would earn him the nickname “Martin Van Ruin.” His solution to the decline , a plan to establish a treasury that would be independent of the state bank-based system that had fueled speculation, was blocked by Whig opposition for three years. During  this time, the downturn devolved into a depression, and Van Buren’s reputation took a permanent hit. In 1840, he would lose reelection to William Henry Harrison, his Whig opponent whose campaign styled him as a “common man.” Van Buren’s party was in such a weak position due to the poor economy that they lost both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Portrait of Martin Van Buren

He spent the next two years of his life nursing his wounds and pondering his next steps. Deciding his ambitions were too great to stay in retirement, in 1842 he set out on a tour of the southern and western states, where he drew large crowds. At the actual nomination meeting, however, many still believed him to be a weak candidate and were looking for other choices. In addition, Van Buren’s recent decision to oppose the annexation of Texas—an area where slavery was common—made it impossible to amass Southern Democrats’ support. Andrew Jackson’s new “chosen one,” James K. Polk, was put forth and quickly clenched the nomination. Van Buren was loyal to the party above all else and so campaigned to help his rival win the northeast. When Polk won, Van Buren expected his efforts to be rewarded with a prestigious cabinet position. None came, and relations between the two men soured. When another shot at the presidency came to Van Buren four years later in the form of an offer to head the splinter group known as the Free-Soil Party—a party dedicated to preventing the induction of new slave states—he took it. His fourth run for the presidency resulted in a poor showing of only 10% of the popular vote and no electoral college support. 

So far, historical precedent does not seem to endorse former President Trump making a third run for the White House. Van Buren suffered a more embarrassing defeat with each subsequent attempt, and as a losing president, he had little ability to influence his party. He was a product of his party, however, so it makes sense that when his party’s establishment turned on him, it would spell death for his political career. How did other losing presidents navigate their comebacks? 

Millard Fillmore: A Disastrous Third-Party Run

Millard Fillmore was Zachary Taylor’s vice president in 1849-1850 and became president when Taylor died unexpectedly of a stomach disease. An obscure figure in modern times, he is primarily remembered for signing the Compromise of 1850, which was designed to delay a civil war by settling which territories acquired through the Mexican American War would become slave states. 

Many within Fillmore’s own party opposed the Compromise, and denied him the Whig nomination in 1852. Over the next four years, Fillmore’s Whig Party gradually collapsed due to intraparty fighting, particularly on the issue of slavery, but Fillmore refused to join the Republicans. In 1856, he ran as the head of the anti-immigrant, anti-elite Know-Nothing Party. This association often leads to direct comparisons between Fillmore and Donald Trump—comparisons which would only multiply were Trump to run as a third-party candidate. 

1856 campaign banner for Millard Fillmore’s presidential candidacy. Library of Congress

Fillmore’s third-party run ended as many such candidacies do in American politics. He  received a small portion of the vote, finishing with 22% of the vote and winning only one state. While he came nowhere close to victory, he did play spoiler for the other party vying to compete with the Democrats, taking votes away from the Republican Party in the key states of Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. 

Grover Cleveland: A Unique Success Story

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) is the single ray of hope in our analysis for those who wish to see President Trump make a comeback four years from now. First elected to the presidency in 1884, he is the only president in American history to serve two nonconsecutive terms. But how did he do it? 

1888 Cleveland campaign poster. Library of Congress

Cleveland established a reputation for integrity and conservatism while serving as governor of New York. He famously reformed the corrupt political bosses of New York City, even though they had supported him during his campaign . While running for president, he carried this image  with him, appealing to voters in both parties with promises to fight big money and corruption. Cleveland would win the election of 1884 against Republican James G. Blane with a narrow 0.7% lead in the popular vote and a more decisive lead of 37 votes in the electoral college. In both of his terms in the highest office, he displayed a “hands-off” style of governing, in which he avoided proposing or shaping new legislation but was quick to veto bills he disapproved of. 

1888 would be a frustrating election for the Democratic Party and the still well-regarded Cleveland. Out-campaigned by Benjamin Harrison, a candidate buoyed by big money, Cleveland won the popular vote by a 100,000 vote margin but lost the electoral college. Crucially, unlike Fillmore and Van Buren, Cleveland remained the undisputed leader of the Democratic Party after leaving office and was perhaps the first American president to act as the “face” of his party, not just its nominee. In 1890, for example, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed that “he constitutes party opinion, party caucuses, party conventions, party platforms, nay, even the party itself, all within the circumference of one capricious waistband!” His hold on his party combined with his solid showing in the popular vote put Cleveland  in a strong position to reclaim the White House four years later. He  performed even better than he had during his first presidential victory and claimed 3% more of the vote compared to his main rival. The Democrats also won back both houses of Congress. 

A group of Democrats in Mason City, Nebraska during the 1888 Cleveland presidential campaign

Theodore Roosevelt: Another Third-Party Spoiler 

Theodore Roosevelt, a trailblazer in many rights, nonetheless brings us back to the old playbook of former presidents who decide they have more to contribute. That is to say, he was unsuccessful. 

A Republican who in some ways personified the Progressive Era, Roosevelt toted policies like conservationism and anti-monopolistic reforms during his two terms in office. A beloved public figure, he retired from the presidency in 1908 after selecting his successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt’s successor, however, based his administration around pro-business and limited-government policies that conflicted with Roosevelt’s vision, and he decided to run again in 1912. 

Roosevelt remained wildly popular throughout the country, and his policy vision was adapted by more people while he had been away. As he campaigned for the Republican nomination, it was clear that the support of the people was behind him—he had won a series of preferential primaries and had even picked up Taft’s home state of Ohio. However, when Republicans met in Chicago, it was Taft who was supported by the party elites, and they awarded all but 19 of 254 contested delegates to the incumbent. Naturally, Roosevelt was enraged at these backroom maneuverings. Many of his supporters called on him to embark on a third-party run, a request which he obliged by forming the Progressive Party, or the Bull Moose Party as it was popularly called. Here, he supported more extreme policies than he ever had during his terms in the White House, including a woman’s right to vote and labor’s right to organize.

In the end, however, the main result of Roosevelt’s 1912 run was to deny Taft a second term and help elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson by splitting Republican support. Combined, Taft and Roosevelt won 50.6% of the popular vote, which was far more than Wilson’s 41.8%. 

Theodore Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Barre, Vermont during his Bull Moose campaign, August 31, 1912

So, what do these stories tell us about former President Trump’s comeback chances? The odds  for his reelection look slim, particularly when one considers he failed to  win the popular vote in either of his presidential runs. Plenty of ex-presidents have continued to hold significant influence on their parties after leaving office, but those who have sought power again after leaving have largely hurt their own parties and thus overall political goals. 

Still, there is good reason to believe that Trump could be an outlier. Former President Trump’s hold on the national media, especially his ability to dictate cable news headlines at will, is seemingly unparalleled. At the moment, he shares Grover Cleveland’s singular hold on his party, though Cleveland’s popular vote totals were probably more important factors. Finally, the elite influence on the party nomination process that quashed Van Buren, Fillmore, and Roosevelt’s chances to run on their old party’s ticket has waned since the Progressive Era. Thanks to  reforms made in the 1970s, the United States  has a relatively weak party system, wherein elected officials are far more obligated to voters than to their party colleagues. There is a flipside to this critique, however, in that all of our examples of losing presidents even attempting to run again come from when elite influence was strong, so there is likely something about the more democratic process that blocks presidential comebacks.

History seems to tell us that Trump will have a difficult time winning back the presidency in 2024, and his even attempting to do so could have a severely negative effect on the GOP. Will this stop Republicans from supporting him? Only time will tell.

Caroline Sutton writes on on political communication, technology, and public diplomacy. She currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a graduate of the MSc Program in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics.

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