POLITICS

Here’s How Successful Vice Presidents Have Been At Getting Elected President

The second in command doesn't move up very often.

History isn’t on Vice President Joe Biden’s side as he mulls a presidential bid. Unless the sitting commander in chief resigns, is assassinated or dies, the vice presidency has not been a great stepping stone into the presidency.

The most recent person to make the jump by getting elected was President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Before that? You have to go back to 1836, when Andrew Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, was elected.

 

(Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, but is not included in this analysis since he was technically a Democrat, and Lincoln was a Republican. The chart shows only same-party vice presidents who took over as president.)

Bush and Van Buren are the only vice presidents to immediately succeed the president they served by election since the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established the electoral process for president and vice president.

Vice presidents had more success when they inherited the office of the presidency prior to standing for election. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were re-elected after assuming the presidency as a result of their predecessors’ deaths.  

In fairness, many vice presidents never ran for president. Only nine have tried ― excluding John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as they were vice president prior to the 12th Amendment. Vice presidents typically get the party’s nomination when they run for president, but only three of nine were elected. This includes Richard Nixon, who lost in his first bid but won eight years later. Not a bad batting average, but not a great win ratio for the second in command.

While Bush and Van Buren did manage to get elected, they didn’t entirely break the vice presidential curse ― neither won a second term. Van Buren took the heat for an economic depression during his term and was defeated in 1840 by the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. An economic downturn proved to be Bush’s downfall as well, opening the door for Democrat Bill Clinton to defeat him in 1992.

In part, Bush’s and Van Buren’s defeats could have been the result of fatigue with the party in power. Both were viewed as the “third term” of their predecessor, and both were ousted by opposing party candidates. Since Bush was defeated in 1992, the presidency has swung predictably on a two-term cycle from one party to another party: Clinton served two terms, as did both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.

That doesn’t mean a Republican will win in 2016. In the current party structure that has been in place since after the Civil War, seven presidents have served two full terms. And after three of those times ― in 1876, 1908 and 1988 ― a candidate from the same party has been elected. On the other four occasions ― 1920, 1960, 2000 and 2008 ― the presidency has shifted to the other party.

This article has been updated to explain why Andrew Johnson is omitted from the chart.


CORRECTION: This article initially misstated the year that George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. He took office in 1989, not 1993. It also misstated that the presidency shifted in 1992 after a president served two terms, when it was referring to 2000.

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