Are unsuccessful presidential candidates expected to retire? I ask this because it seems that the candidates work their whole political lives to make a presidential nomination, and if they are then not elected they seem to vanish from all popular discourse.

I wonder why that is?

  • 5
    Well there are lots of unsuccessful candidates - the vast majority not making past the primaries. Many of those win concurrent elections (or remain seated) as US representatives, Senators, Governors, etc.... In the world of 'career' politicians, their time as an elected official can carry on for as long as they can win votes. Many many politicians do so no matter what offices they unsuccessfully run for. If anything, I consider this a fault in our system. It's one reason why there is a quieted, but neverending call for term limits.
    – ouflak
    Dec 23, 2022 at 13:34
  • 7
    It's also not at all uncommon for unsuccessful candidates to be appointed to the cabinet or other such high positions (ambassadorships are typical) in an attempt to appease constituencies.
    – ouflak
    Dec 23, 2022 at 13:37
  • 3
    VP running mates are often picked from defeated party primary rivals.
    – H Huang
    Dec 24, 2022 at 0:00

4 Answers 4


There are at least three examples from (relatively) recent history where the politician not only did not "vanish from all popular discourse" they actually managed to become President after failing in an earlier election cycle:

Those are three politicians who went on to become President. There are multiple others who failed who remained visibly active in politics. Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Pete Buttigieg are just some recent examples.

  • 7
    Biden became Vice President to Obama so has held high office for 10 of the 14 years since 2008 showing that the premise of the question is totally wrong.
    – deep64blue
    Dec 24, 2022 at 0:13
  • 14
    John McCain went back to being a Senator after losing to Obama in 2008 Dec 24, 2022 at 2:04
  • 5
    Add Sanders to the list too. Dec 24, 2022 at 19:39
  • 1
    @OwenReynolds: Mitt Romney did so as well, although IIRC he took a short break.
    – Kevin
    Dec 25, 2022 at 4:06
  • 1
    Lots of "losers" also end up in the cabinet, and Harris became VP.
    – Barmar
    Dec 26, 2022 at 15:59

Definitely not, as example Nixon lost in 1960 United States presidential election to Kennedy, but won in 1968 United States presidential election.

Bernie Sanders tried twice to get Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States.


There are considerations beyond winning the nomination or the election.

During the nomination process, standing for the nomination is a means of accomplishing a number of goals. The goals that are usually considered to be laudable include things that can be summed up as influence in the party, and increased visibility both within the party and in the wider community. The goals that are usually considered as suspect can be summed up as connecting to the party machine.

During the election process, even the loser can achieve a variety of goals. For example, they are frequently involved in debates and speeches that are picked up and carried by national and international news organizations. These are opportunities to inject ideas into the political consciousness. These ideas do not necessarily get implemented in the current election cycle. But they often remain as topics of discussion that get implemented at some later date.

The 2020 Democratic primary process was a reasonably good example of this. There were an unusually large number of candidates at the start of the process. We were treated to enough people on the stage during televised debates that the reporters resorted to asking for "a show of hands" on some questions. Some of those candidates have disappeared from public life. Others used it to achieve a certain amount of celebrity and so further their political life. Pete Buttigieg is an example, currently in the position of Secretary of Transportation.

  • 2
    The same could be said of the 2016 Republican slate as well.
    – Joe W
    Dec 23, 2022 at 17:08
  • 2
    Bernie Sanders could be a good example of a candidate in the primaries running mainly to promote his ideas and to influence his party platform.
    – Pere
    Dec 24, 2022 at 17:26

I can't believe nobody has mentioned Donald Trump yet:

  • Ran in 2000 but dropped out after two primaries.
  • Announced in 2004 but never filed.
  • Announced in 2008 but never filed.
  • Floated the idea to run in 2012 but backed out.
  • Lost in 2020.

That's twice Donald Trump ran unsuccessfully, yet it does not look like he vanished from all popular discourse.

Some other examples from the 2020 election:

  • Kamala Harris
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Cory Booker
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Kanye West
  • Maybe no one mentioned DT because of wishful thinking. :)
    – Barmar
    Dec 26, 2022 at 16:01

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