The 2024 presidential election is not the first time in U.S. history that the same two presidential candidates have faced off in back-to-back contests. Still, presidential rematches are relatively rare, occurring only six times in the nation’s history and not once since 1956.

“You don’t typically see rematches happen because it’s unusual for a political party to nominate a loser again,” says Barbara Ann Perry, presidential biographer and co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “As General George Patton said, ‘Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.’”

But as these six rematches show, the candidate who lost in the first round often came back for the win.

1. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (1796 and 1800)

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
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Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

The Founding Fathers were strongly opposed to the formation of political parties, or what they called “factions.” They desperately wanted to avoid the rancorous political divisions that had led to England’s bloody civil wars in the 17th century. But despite trying to write a Constitution that sidestepped factions, opposition parties formed almost immediately. 

“What’s ironic to me is that the Founding Fathers leave Philadelphia in 1787 with this draft of a Constitution that now has to be ratified, and the first thing that they do is form into two groups,” says Perry, “one that is supportive of the Constitution as it’s now rewritten and another group that isn’t. That becomes our two political parties.”

George Washington was famously nonpartisan, but two members of his own cabinet—namely Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—spearheaded the formation of the nation’s first two political parties: Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists.  

When Washington voluntarily stepped down from the presidency after his second term in 1796, he warned against the dangers of factions in his farewell address: “They are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterward the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

One of the ways that the Founding Fathers tried to check the formation of strong political parties was the Electoral College. According to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the president is elected by a slate of electors chosen by each state, not by the popular vote. Electors, by design, were meant to be members of the “educated elite,” says Perry, not the popular masses, and were supposed to be above the fray of political factions and the influence of would-be demagogues.

“The problem was, electors didn't have two separate votes: one for president and vice president,” says Perry. “The person who received the majority of votes was president and the person with the second-most votes was vice president. In the 1796 election, that's how you ended up with two different parties being represented: John Adams, the president, was a Federalist and Thomas Jefferson, his vice president, was a Democratic-Republican.”

Forced to work side-by-side with political enemies, the divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans grew into a chasm by the 1800 election. The warring factions cast the presidential contest as nothing less than a choice between liberty and ruin, and political pamphleteers smeared opposing candidates.

In an effort to win both the presidency and the vice presidency, each major party ran two candidates, but none of them managed to win a majority of the electoral college. Interestingly, it was the two Democratic-Republican candidates—Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr—who received the most votes, but they tied at exactly 73.

According to the Constitution, if no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College, the decision goes to the House of Representatives, where each representative gets one vote. In an effort to stall or derail the proceedings, the Federalists backed Burr against Jefferson, the favorite of the two Democratic-Republicans. The House vote was deadlocked for weeks before Jefferson was finally declared the winner and Burr was forced to serve as his vice president.

The “two-vote” Electoral College system was changed in 1804 with the passage of the 12th Amendment, giving electors separate ballots for president and vice president.

2. John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson (1824 and 1828)

John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
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John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

The next presidential rematch between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was motivated by revenge for a “stolen” election.

In the 1824 election, political parties were no longer the deciding factor, because the Federalists hadn’t won in decades and the Democratic-Republicans had splintered into bickering factions. Instead, the problem was that five different prominent candidates were vying for the country’s highest office, almost guaranteeing that none of them would win an electoral majority. Which is exactly what happened.

Once again, the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives, which was tasked with choosing between the top three finishers: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford and General Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812.

Adams won, but not without controversy. An anonymous letter accused Adams of forging a “corrupt bargain” with fellow presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Henry Clay. The letter claimed that Clay used his influence in the House to assure victory for Adams in exchange for a cabinet position as Secretary of State.

Infuriated, Jackson spent the next four years in the Senate criticizing Adams and building his reputation as a political outsider and man of “the people.” In his 1828 rematch against Adams, Jackson won by a landslide: 173 electoral votes to 83.

3. Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison (1836 and 1840)

Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison.
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Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison.

In the next presidential rematch, political parties and a polarized electorate were back in the driver’s seat.

Martin Van Buren served as vice president under Andrew Jackson and together they created the powerful new Democratic party. After Jackson’s second term, Van Buren was his natural successor. But Jackson also made a lot of enemies during his tenure, and those critics coalesced to form an “anti-Jackson” party called the Whigs.

In the 1836 election, the Whigs were a loose coalition of regional political factions, not a united political party. Thanks to the Whig party’s disorganization, a total of four Whig candidates ran against Van Buren in 1836. Van Buren won easily with 57 percent of the electoral votes. The distant second-place finisher was retired General William Henry Harrison, a Whig, with 23 percent.

In the run-up to the 1840 election, the Whigs held their first national convention and put all of their weight behind Harrison. The 1840 election was, in many ways, the first modern presidential election complete with campaign slogans and publicity stunts.

The Whigs portrayed Harrison as “Old Tippecanoe,” a war hero and man of the people. With his vice presidential candidate John Tyler, Harrison’s catchy campaign slogan (and song) was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” Van Buren was excoriated as “Martin Van Ruin” and the whigs flooded the campaign trail with commemorative plates, cups and flags emblazoned with the face of “Old Tip.”

Harrison won the 1840 rematch election by a landslide with nearly 80 percent of the electoral vote. Tragically, Harrison died after only 32 days in office.

4. Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison (1888 and 1892)

Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison
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Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.

The next election rematch produced a one-of-a-kind result: the only president (so far) to serve two non-consecutive terms.

New York Democrat Stephen “Grover” Cleveland handily won the 1884 presidential election, breaking a 24-year Republican lock on the White House. But four years later, Cleveland fell to Republican Senator Benjamin Harrison (grandson of ill-fated William Henry Harrison). Harrison was a popular Civil War veteran from Indiana, a critical swing state. Cleveland had opposed Civil War pensions and made enemies with Gilded-Age industrialists by lowering tariffs.

Cleveland married his young wife Frances while in the White House and she famously told the staff to “take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house … for I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again four years from today.”

For his part, Cleveland didn’t plan on running again. He wanted to live the good life in New York city with his new family. But after a disastrous showing for the Republicans in the 1890 midterm elections, Cleveland saw that his old rival Harrison was vulnerable. Cleveland easily secured the Democratic nomination and came back to defeat Harrison in the 1892 election, 277 electoral votes to 145. Frances was right, after all.

5. William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (1896 and 1900)

William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan
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William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.

Right on the heels of the 1892 election rematch were two more elections with identical candidates: Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The political divide this time wasn’t ideological, says Perry, but economic.

McKinley was a pro-business conservative and a staunch defender of the gold standard, which set the value of America’s currency against the nation’s physical holdings of gold bullion. Bryan was a lawyer, populist and a skilled orator who railed against the gold standard in a fiery speech at the 1896 Democratic convention:

“We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” said Bryan. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan took his campaign on the road, traveling nearly 20,000 miles by rail around the country giving hundreds of “whistlestop” speeches from the back of a train. Bryan preached his economic gospel of “free silver” to crowds of rural farmers, while McKinley attracted mostly urban crowds to his home in Canton, Ohio, where he was able to raise almost $4 million from businessmen and bankers.

The new urban-rural political divide favored McKinley, who rode a well-funded campaign to a convincing win in 1896 with 61 percent of the electoral vote.

The same two men faced off in 1900, but McKinley was in an even better position. The economy was strong and McKinley ran on the campaign slogan, “The Full Dinner Pail,” meaning prosperity and abundance under the gold standard. McKinley won by an even wider margin in 1900, but was assassinated less than a year later. His vice president and successor was Theodor Roosevelt.

6. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956)

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson
Dwight D. Eisenhower (L) and Adlai Stevenson (R). Credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Dwight D. Eisenhower (L) and Adlai Stevenson (R).

Adlai Stevenson faced a tough challenge against Dwight D. Eisenhower, a wildly popular World War II general.

“Americans are suckers for winning generals,” says Perry. “He was the all-American hero. It would have been hard for anyone to defeat him.”

Eisenhower, who remained nonpartisan during his military career, was so popular that he was wooed by both Democrats and Republicans as a presidential candidate. In the end, Eisenhower picked the Republicans and ran on a conservative, pro-business platform that rejected the isolationism of some congressional Republicans.

“If you weren’t an isolationist, then you were part of what was called the ‘Cold War consensus,’” says Perry. “A majority of both Democrats and Republicans were unified in fighting the common enemy of the Communists, particularly the Soviet Union and Red China, as it was called.”

Stevenson was a popular governor of Illinois and a smart, charismatic reformer. Many of his policies were later adopted by John F. Kennedy. Against another opponent, he may have won the presidency, but not “Ike.”

In 1952, Eisenhower captured 83 percent of the electoral vote. For the rematch in 1956, Democrats tried to make an issue out of Eisenhower’s age—Ike would turn 70 by the end of his second term. Stevenson tried to persuade voters that a vote for Eisenhower was really a vote for Ike’s vice president, the younger, but far less popular, Richard Nixon. In 1956, Ike won by an even bigger landslide with 86 percent of the electoral vote.

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