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Former President Donald Trump wants to do a full Grover Cleveland and match the only US president to lose a presidential election and then rise from the ashes to regain the White House four years later.
Other examples of former presidents trying to regain power have gone poorly. Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive rebellion split open a schism in the GOP; neither Herbert Hoover nor Martin Van Buren could get nominations from their parties after previous losses.
With the announcement of his third White House run, Trump is trying to emulate Cleveland, who won, lost and then won the White House in 1884, 1888 and 1892.
In many other ways, Trump, a native New Yorker, and Cleveland, the only president born in New Jersey, have little in common. Most of what’s below comes from reading about Cleveland at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and also the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.
Trump, a Republican, lost the popular vote twice. He lost both the Electoral College and the popular vote to Joe Biden in 2020, but Trump also got fewer popular votes compared with Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, when he beat her in the Electoral College in 2016.
Cleveland, a Democrat, won the popular vote three times. He got more popular votes than his opponent when he won the White House in 1884 and 1892, and while he lost the Electoral College vote to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, Cleveland beat him in the popular vote. Regardless of the popular vote, Cleveland’s first win in 1884 was thanks to an extremely narrow 1,200-vote margin that delivered him New York’s decisive electoral votes.
Trump rejected his loss. The former president skipped Biden’s inauguration, still won’t admit he lost in 2020 and has infected the Republican Party with a vein of denialism.
Cleveland held the umbrella as his opponent became president. At a rainy inauguration in March 1889, Cleveland held an umbrella over Harrison’s head as the latter took the oath of office.
Trump is one of the oldest presidents. Seventy when he took office in 2017, Trump would be 78 if he wins and takes office again in January 2025. That would make him the second-oldest president after Biden.
Cleveland was a young president. Just 47 when he first took the oath of office, Cleveland was 55 when he won reelection. Cleveland died at 71, an age at which Trump was in the first half of his term.
Trump revels in the campaign. He lives for winding speeches eaten up by adoring crowds.
Cleveland barely campaigned. Candidates of the day didn’t campaign as much, but when he first won the White House in 1884, Cleveland gave just two campaign speeches.
He was similarly disinterested in campaigning four years later, which could explain his defeat in 1888, but doesn’t explain how he won again in 1892.
Trump is famous for denying scandals. One example: He disputed paying hush money to women who alleged affairs with him despite the confirmation of his former attorney Michael Cohen, who set up the payments.
Cleveland admitted an affair. Attacked by Republicans in 1884, Cleveland admitted he may in fact have fathered an illegitimate child with a woman later sent to an insane asylum.
“Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa,” went the attack ad of the day. Cleveland turned honesty into a campaign attribute and urged supporters to tell the truth.
Trump imposed tariffs. One of Trump’s lasting policy legacies are the tariffs he imposed on China and other countries.
Cleveland fought tariffs. A reason he lost in 1892 was Cleveland’s opposition to high tariffs, an unpopular position exploited by Harrison.
There are, however, some other similarities between Trump and Cleveland.
They both married younger women. Melania Trump is 24 years younger than her husband, Donald. Cleveland married his wife Frances during his first term in the White House, still the only marriage of a sitting president conducted at the White House. Frances Cleveland was 21 at the time and had been Cleveland’s ward after her father, Cleveland’s former law partner, died.
They both considered using troops on Americans. Trump considered calling out the military on protesters in front of the White House, and some of his advisers considered trying to impose martial law as they sought to overturn his defeat in 2020.
Cleveland called out federal troops to put down the Pullman railcar strike, a controversial and unprecedented use of force against striking workers.
(Related: Today, the odds of a railroad union strike are on the rise after a third union rejected a proposed contract. Read more.)
They both promised to clean up Washington. Trump won in 2016 promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and Cleveland’s main issue was to put corrupt Republicans in check, something that resonated with anti-corruption Republicans known as the “Mugwumps.”
They both cut down on some immigration. The issue that most animated Trump was building a wall at the southern border. He also curbed legal immigration to the US and imposed a travel ban on certain countries. Cleveland renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act and prevented Chinese laborers from returning to the US. But Cleveland rejected a law that would have imposed a literacy test on immigrants.
They both relied on the South. Trump could not win his home state of New York like Cleveland did, but both men relied on a southern base of support for their political power.
Joshua Zeitz wrote for Politico recently that when Cleveland ran in 1892 after losing in 1888, it was largely out of boredom. Trump, meanwhile, seems to be more interested in revenge for what he falsely calls a fraudulent election.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Martin Van Buren’s political party. He was a Democrat.