The second-most newsworthy conversation President Trump had in the Oval Office on Thursday was an interview with reporters from the Wall Street Journal. If his meeting with senators during which he disparaged African nations, Haiti and El Salvador was revealing in one way, his sit-down with the Journal was revealing in several others.
Among them was a lengthy defense Trump presented of his own capabilities and excellence. “Nobody gets more false press than I do,” he said, before launching into a long list of ways in which his successes have been ignored.
I went to the Wharton School of Finance, did well. I went out, I started in Brooklyn, in a Brooklyn office with my father, I became one of the most successful real-estate developers, one of the most successful business people. I created maybe the greatest brand.
I then go into, in addition to that, part-time, like five percent a week, I open up a television show. As you know, the Apprentice on many evenings was the number one show on all of television, a tremendous success. It went on for 12 years, a tremendous success. They wanted to sign me for another three years and I said, no, I can’t do that.
That’s one of the reasons NBC hates me so much. NBC hates me so much they wanted — they were desperate to sign me for — for three more years. … I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did and then I run for president, first time — first time, not three times, not six times. I ran for president first time and lo and behold, I win. And then people say oh, is he a smart person? I’m smarter than all of them put together, but they can’t admit it. They had a bad year.
There are all sorts of ways one can nitpick Trump’s claims. (Is the Trump brand greater than, say, Disney?) One can also intersperse some fact-checking: “The Apprentice” was the number one show on television precisely once, during the first season finale. But we’d like to nitpick one particular claim: That it’s remarkable to have won the presidency on his first try.
Trump has made this argument before. It was the first part of his now infamous “stable genius” tweet, in fact.
But it’s wrong. There’s nothing remarkable at all about winning the presidency on your first try. In fact, most presidents won on their first tries, according to our review of the field.
This makes some sense. The window of viability as a possible presidential candidate is narrow, and presidential elections only crop up every four years. Americans also tend to like novelty, which doesn’t hurt.
So let’s review the track records of the 44 men who’ve been president. (Trump is number 45 because Grover Cleveland served in both the 22nd and 24th slots.)
This is not as clear-cut as it might seem. The modern presidential candidacy, with a primary battle yielding candidates from the two major parties, is a relatively new thing. It’s true that Trump threw his hat in the ring and won the presidency right off the bat, but this is also what Barack Obama did in 2008. It’s what George W. Bush did in 2000. It’s what Bill Clinton did in 1992. The last president who didn’t do that was George H.W. Bush, who vied for the Republican nomination in 1980, eventually earning a position on the ticket as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. (Reagan, too, ran once prior to the time he won, in 1976.)
It’s true that a lot of presidential candidates try more than once: Mitt Romney, John McCain, Hillary Clinton (who is probably the example that sticks in Trump’s craw). But those candidates weren’t elected president.
As we keep going backward, we hit Gerald Ford, who was inaugurated in 1974 — without running for president even once! If becoming president on your first try is something remarkable, how about becoming president without ever trying at all. In fact, eight presidents earned that distinction by our count, mostly after presidents died in office.
Once we get back a century or so, things get a little tricky. Calvin Coolidge was put forward as a possible presidential candidate four years before he won but doesn’t seem to have actually campaigned for it; does that count? The pre-primary era of parties picking candidates makes determining who ran and when a little iffier.
Going back even further, we get to the era in which electors voted for presidents and vice presidents. When George Washington beat out John Adams for the presidency in 1789, does that count as a campaign for Adams? Or three years later, when Thomas Jefferson got some votes from the electors, does that count? (We figured it did, but colored the bars a lighter green for these candidates.)
Trump’s seizing on the first-try metric as indicative of his excellence is a lot like a number of other ways in which he trumpets unimportant bits of data as being exceptional. In the Journal interview, he repeats (at length) his frequent insistence that it’s hard for Republicans to win the electoral college and that his unexpected total (304 electors voted for him) was the mark of a massive victory. (Of course, he lost the popular vote — which he tells the Journal is easier to win than the electoral college.)
By our count, 27 presidents won the presidency the first time they ran, just like Trump. Several of those presidents had also never run for any office before, though they often instead had served in the military. Nine presidents ran more than once before first being inaugurated, though only three since the Civil War. (Richard Nixon joins Reagan and Bush.) And then there are those eight presidents who were so exceptional that they simply were handed the presidency without ever running for it.
How good they were at sports, though, is generally not recorded. Except in the case of Teddy Roosevelt, who was very good at them — but whose corporate brand was sub-par.