The Success Rate of Vice Presidents Running for President

The American political class loves to speculate on who will be the next president. The potential president "mentioning game" is always a hot topic of Washington gossip.  Years before a presidential elections polls start appearing on who is running ahead of whom, and these polls have some predictive value. It is rare for a candidate who is not high in the polls in the year prior to a presidential election to win a major party nomination. Occasionally dark horse candidates explode on the scene early in the primary process and temporarily gain the public imagination but such late blooming candidacies usually fade almost as quickly as they emerge.  But there are cases like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who were relatively unknown until they began winning early primaries.

As the end of the Clinton presidency neared, many experts saw Al Gore as the likely next president. Many feel that as the sitting vice president in times of peace and prosperity Gore should have won the election. But closer historical analysis of the history of vice presidents running for president shows that Gore actually would have been beating the odds if he had pulled out a victory.

Vice Presidents and Former Vice Presidents Seeking the Presidency

     Winners                                          Losers
Gore (VP)
Bush (P)
Bush (VP)
Mondale (former VP)
Ford (P)
Nixon (P)
Nixon (former VP)
Humphrey (VP)
Johnson (P)
Nixon (VP)
Truman (P)
Coolidge (P)
T. Roosevelt*
T. Roosevelt (P)
P=incumbent president

VP=incumbent vice president

*=ran as third party candidate

Vice presidents and former vice presidents have been particularly active as presidential candidates since 1960. Only twice since 1960 has there not been a vice president or former vice president nominated by either the Democrats or the Republicans, in 1980 and 1996. No sitting vice president who has sought his party’s nomination has been denied it since Barkley in 1948. The 1968 election even featured the sitting Vice president Humphrey against former Vice president Nixon. During this time period vice presidents and former vice presidents won 4 victories but suffered 6 defeats. Former vice presidents did much better from 1904-1948. They won in every case in which they were nominated by a major party. Teddy Roosevelt, who was running as a third party candidate, was the only former vice president to loose an election in this period.

All in all, in the 20th century, vice presidents and former vice presidents won 7 elections but lost 7. Things were quite different in the 19th century. In the early republic the vice presidency was a stepping stone to the presidency. The first vice president, John Adams, became the second president, and the second vice president, Thomas Jefferson, became the third president. But then the vice presidency was relegated to sidelines. The only other vice president to be elected to the presidency in the 19th century was Martin Van Buren, in 1836. Even vice presidents who became president upon the death of their predecessor were routinely denied nomination for the next election by their own party.

In the 20th century, 7 vice presidents have become president, and six of these men later won a presidential election. Four—Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson—succeeded a dead president and then later won an election on their own. Richard Nixon won election in 1968 as an ex-vice president. Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon when he resigned, but lost the 1976 election. George Bush won election in 1988 as the sitting vice president, the first sitting vice president to win an election since Martin van Buren in 1836.

The second half of the 20th century is the era of vice presidents going on to run for president. But it seems to make a big difference whether a vice president is running as a sitting vice president or as an incumbent president. Vice presidents who have succeeded to the presidency and are running as incumbent presidents have won 4 out of 5 times in the 20th century.  But sitting vice presidents have won only once in 4 attempts. Nixon in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, Gore in 2000 all lost. The elder Bush in 1988 is the only sitting vice president to win in the 20th century.