Transition of power, throughout the years: Most cases peaceful, some awkward

What has the transition looked like after an incumbent president lost his re-election bid? We’ll show you

Bill Clinton receives a hug from wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, following his inauguration into the Presidency. Pictured in the background is outgoing president George H.W. Bush, who Clinton defeated in the 1992 election. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis (Getty Images)

Transition of presidential power isn’t always easy.

When President Donald Trump lost November 2020′s election, it marked just the 11th time in U.S. history an incumbent president was beaten in a re-election bid.

On the surface, it seems like it might be an awkward transition -- in which the current president vacates his office and is forced to witness the inauguration of his successor. But a majority of the transitions throughout history have been peaceful.

Here are the 10 previous times an incumbent president lost a re-election bid:


John Adams was defeated in a re-election bid by Thomas Jefferson, and while he loathed Jefferson and didn’t attend his inauguration, Adams ceded the office peacefully, according to History. In the middle of the night before the inauguration was scheduled to start, Adams departed Washington, D.C. and started his post-presidential life.


There was some bad blood between incumbent president John Quincy Adams and challenger Andrew Jackson, which stemmed from a controversial ending to the 1824 election that involved both men.

Jackson won the most electoral votes in a four-person race that included Adams and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, but Jackson didn’t win the number of votes required for election.

The election was then decided by the House of Representatives, which voted in Adams. After being inaugurated, Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State, bringing forth corruption allegations by Jackson.

Four years later, Jackson gained revenge by winning a nasty campaign over Adams filled with mudslinging. The stress of the campaign ultimately led to the death of Jackson’s wife, Rachel, according to CNN.

While there was no major incident with Adams giving up office, supporters of Jackson did swarm the White House to try and congratulate him, in the process, damaging furniture and china and forcing Jackson to flee, according to CNN.


Martin Van Buren was defeated handily by William Henry Harrison, collecting just 60 electoral votes to Harrison’s 240.

However, Harrison died of an illness just a month into his presidency. Vice President John Tyler took over after that.

1888 and 1892

These are paired together because they involve the same candidates. In 1888, Grover Cleveland was defeated in a re-election bid by Benjamin Harrison. In 1892, the two squared off again, with Cleveland regaining the presidency by beating Harrison.

Cleveland remains the only president ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms.


William Howard Taft sought re-election against former president Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In the end, Wilson won in a landslide.


This was not a peaceful transition of power between outgoing president Herbert Hoover and the man who defeated him in the election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Herbert didn’t think highly of Roosevelt, according to CNN, even saying that he wouldn’t ever be photographed with Roosevelt.

Despite a lot of reluctance, according to, Hoover rode with Roosevelt in a car to the inauguration and ultimately shook his hand when it was over. After that, Hoover left for New York City and the two never saw each other again.


There was a quirk in this election in that President Gerald Ford was technically the incumbent seeking re-election, but he took over the presidency in 1974 following the resignation of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. Ford was eventually defeated by Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Ford had laryngitis, so he had his wife Betty give the concession speech in which the Fords congratulated Carter. The concession speech can be viewed here.


Four years after defeating an incumbent, Jimmy Carter was on the other side of the coin, losing his re-election bid to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. In his concession speech that can be viewed here, Carter said he had been “blessed as only a few people ever have.”


The last time an incumbent president lost a re-election bid, George H.W. Bush was defeated soundly by Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Bush was gracious in a concession speech that can be viewed here, saying “I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done and America must always come first, so we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.