5 U.S. Presidents Who Never Won a Presidential Election

Gerald Ford
President Gerald Ford served as president of the United States but was never elected to the office.

Chris Polk / FilmMagic / Getty Images

There are only five presidents in American history who never won a presidential election. The most recent was Republican Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States. Ford served from 1974 to 1977 and then left office in electoral defeat.

While some others assumed the presidency under tumultuous or tragic circumstances and then went on to win a second term, Ford is among a handful who failed to convince voters to return him to power after he ascended to the White House because his predecessor resigned. The other presidents who never won presidential elections were John TylerMillard FillmoreAndrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur.

Ford is also among fewer than a dozen one-term presidents who ran for a second term but were denied by voters.

How Ford Became President

Ford was serving as vice president in 1974 amid scandal in President Richard M. Nixon's administration. He ascended to the presidency when Nixon resigned before he was to face prosecution over the 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters in what became known as the Watergate scandal. Nixon was facing certain impeachment at the time. 

As Ford said in taking the oath of office:

"I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances. This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts."

Ford's Reelection Bid

Ford won the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 but lost in the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter, who went on to serve one term. Ford's political fortunes sank amid a depressed economy, inflation, and energy shortages at home. 

Ford and Carter had engaged in what is believed to be among the most important political debates in political history. The debate, many historians believe, proved disastrous to Ford's bid for a second term in the White House.

Ford famously claimed, erroneously, the following: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford's statement was met with incredulity from moderator Max Frankel of The New York Times and served to tarnish his campaign.

Others Who Didn't Win or Seek Reelection

  • John Tyler became president when President William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841. Tyler could not muster enough support to sustain a legitimate presidential campaign. 
  • Millard Fillmore became president when Zachary Taylor died in 1850. Fillmore sought his party's nomination for a second term but was denied.
  • Andrew Johnson became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson did not run for office after being impeached (but not removed from office) by Congress. 
  • Chester A. Arthur became president after James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Arthur did not run for reelection. 
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Murse, Tom. "5 U.S. Presidents Who Never Won a Presidential Election." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/us-presidents-who-never-won-an-election-3367509. Murse, Tom. (2023, April 5). 5 U.S. Presidents Who Never Won a Presidential Election. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/us-presidents-who-never-won-an-election-3367509 Murse, Tom. "5 U.S. Presidents Who Never Won a Presidential Election." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/us-presidents-who-never-won-an-election-3367509 (accessed May 31, 2023).