I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Donald Trump’s been quite the factor in the 2022 midterms so far. Between his frequent interventions in Republican primaries, and his unique ability to dominate the national discourse, the former President is still arguably the most visible figure in this election cycle.
While Trump’s influence is certainly unorthodox, it’s not exactly unprecedented. In fact, there’s a long and complex history of ex-Presidents approaching the first midterm of their post-presidency. To prove it, I dug into archives for each Commander-in-Chief since WWII, to see where they stood two years after leaving office.
Harry S. Truman – 1954
These were definitely tough days for Harry Truman. Not only was he still recovering from the record low approval ratings he left office with, he was also recovering from summer gallbladder surgery. Unsurprisingly, he used that operation as an excuse to explain why he wouldn’t be hitting the hustings.
Truman made one exception, however, addressing a rally in Kansas City on October 16th that was broadcast nationwide on the radio. The proudly partisan Democrat sought to expose GOP rifts, especially on foreign policy, between their isolationist and interventionist wings. Nevertheless, Truman was largely a non-factor in these midterms, as he waited for his reputation to recover.
Dwight Eisenhower – 1962
In contrast to his predecessor, folks still liked Ike, and the ex-General was surprisingly eager to hit the campaign trail and make the case against his successor John F. Kennedy. Denouncing JFK and his advisors as a “clique of young, so-called brilliant men,” Eisenhower sought to counteract the sitting President as they embarked on dueling trips throughout the country.
Ike even made a point to hit Kennedy on foreign policy, with not-so-subtle references to the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs. That strategy hit an enormous roadblock, however, when the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in late October. Eisenhower was then put in the awkward position of trying to support Kennedy while also still appealing for Republican votes.
On Election Day, Democrats historically over-performed as several prominent GOP officials, including Ike’s old VP Richard Nixon, went down to defeat. A few days later, Eisenhower would complain that the crisis in Cuba had obscured the real issues. Regardless, while he would stay involved in Republican politics, health problems prevented him from ever again attempting another campaign season blitz.
Lyndon Johnson – 1970
LBJ suffered through an intensely painful, and terribly short, post-Presidency. The life-long political animal was practically a pariah in his party after Vietnam forced him to drop out of the 1968 presidential race.
So in 1970, Johnson’s campaign activities were limited to a few fundraisers in his home state of Texas. Even there, though, Democratic candidates like Lloyd Bentsen avoided being seen with the one-time titan. LBJ wouldn’t do much in the 1972 election cycle either, and never lived to see another.
Richard Nixon – 1974
As bad as Lyndon Johnson’s 1970 midterms were, Richard Nixon’s 1974 midterms somehow managed to be even worse. Nixon, of course, had resigned just three months earlier, and while Ford had granted him a pardon, the former President was still in serious shape.
In late October, Nixon suddenly began bleeding internally after an operation to remove a blood clot, seemingly destined for a quick and ignoble end. Yet Nixon rallied, putting Ford in the awkward position of having to visit him in the hospital just days before the midterms. Nixon even got well enough to cast his own absentee ballot, although it didn’t do much good.
The 1974 midterms would go down in history as one of the largest Democratic wave elections ever. Nixon, meanwhile, would stage his final comeback by regaining some of his respectability before passing away in 1994. His days as a Republican campaign surrogate, however, ended with that infamous helicopter ride.
Gerald Ford – 1978
In retrospect, the 1978 midterms marked a turning point in Gerald Ford’s life. At the time, the former President was being pulled towards two diametrically opposed paths. On the one hand, he was an active campaigner preparing the groundwork for a potential 1980 comeback. On the other hand, he was eyeing the better kind of life he could secure for himself and his family if stayed retired from politics.
Right after Election Day, ex-First Lady Betty Ford released her memoirs, which were brutally honest about her drinking problem and stint in rehab. To support the book, Betty went on a tour of her own alongside her husband. In time, Gerald Ford would decide that the life of an ex-President was the better path for his family. So he passed on running in 1980, went on to make a ton of money serving on corporate boards, and still got to make the occasional stump speech in the years ahead.
Jimmy Carter – 1982
Whereas Ford earned plenty of invites from campaigns after his White House ouster, Jimmy Carter wasn’t so lucky. The Georgian’s only involvement in the 1982 midterms was a D.C. DNC fundraiser, Carter’s first political event since leaving office nearly two years prior. Already, Carter’s heart was drawn more towards foreign affairs than domestic politics.
Nevertheless, his legacy still meant a great deal to him, which was why he was out promoting his memoirs in the wake of a successful Election Day 1982 for the Democrats. This would become a trend over the next few decades, as Carter mostly devoted his time to charity works and penning more books.
Ronald Reagan – 1990
It’s not exactly shocking to learn that Johnson, Nixon and Carter weren’t terribly beloved right after leaving the White House. To find out that Ronald Reagan wasn’t popular enough to be a GOP surrogate in the 1990 midterms, however, was a bit of a surprise. The 40th President instead spent September on an international tour of Germany, Poland and Russia.
While Reagan still enjoyed a positive approval rating, he was worlds away from the respect he’d gain by the end of the decade. In one toss-up Connecticut House race, for example, the Democratic candidate was explicitly running against Reaganism.
Reagan was also preoccupied that fall because, you guessed it, his memoir was set to release right after Election Day. The ex-President went on the requisite book tour, and even earned a TIME Magazine cover for the first excerpts. Only a few years later, Reagan was forced to retire from public life after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
George H.W. Bush – 1994
Just two years after George Bush lost his bid for a second term, his two sons George and Jeb were embarking on their political careers by seeking the Governorships of Texas and Florida respectively. The elder Bush jumped at the chance to lend a helping hand to his kids by attending a host of fundraisers, but otherwise sought to be seen as a figure above politics. Although that determination didn’t prevent him from endorsing Oliver North, the Iran-Contra convict who nearly won a Virginia Senate seat in this cycle.
Meanwhile, memoir duty fell to former First Lady Barbara Bush, who topped the bestsellers list in October. Bush’s book, which was based on diaries she kept for decades, sought to settle scores from the 1992 campaign, including shots at Bill Clinton, the media and Pat Buchanan. Altogether, the fall of 1994 was an intriguing interim between the two eras of the Bush dynasty.
Bill Clinton – 2002
Speaking of a political dynasty in the midst of a lull, we now move on to Bill Clinton’s involvement in the 2002 midterms. The former President eagerly stepped in to fill the power vacuum at the top of the Democratic Party, stumping for candidates throughout the country, including many who’d served in his Administration.
Of course, the downside to being so publicly visible was that Clinton got the blame when the Dems managed to be the first out-of-power party to lose a midterm election since 1934. Perhaps this could be a prelude to Donald Trump’s 2022 midterm experience.
Nevertheless, the 2002 midterms weren’t a total disaster for Clinton, as he helped Mark Pryor flip a Senate seat in his home state of Arkansas. Just how proud were Arkansians of their native son in the fall of 2002? Apparently so much so that the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame made him their first white inductee.
George W. Bush – 2010
Democrats would have gladly welcomed George W. Bush’s participation in the 2010 midterm cycle. After all, the younger Bush left office with some of the worst approval ratings in history. Bush naturally wanted nothing to do with these midterms, preferring to hang out at Texas Rangers games instead that fall.
Yet the specter of Bush remained central to Democratic messaging. For instance, President Obama would not-so-subtly describe how he inherited a country in a ditch, implicitly referencing the legacies of the Great Recession and the Iraq War. Speaking from experience, I can tell you Democratic direct mailers were much more explicit.
Finally, as you no doubt expected by now, Bush waited until just after Election Day to reemerge and tour his brand-new book.
Barack Obama – 2018
We probably have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1962 to find a President as popular and as willing to hit the midterm campaign trail as Barack Obama was in 2018. Coming off Donald Trump’s shocking victory in 2016, the Democratic Party felt lost in the wilderness and was overjoyed to see President Obama step into the void during the fall campaign season.
Starting shortly after Labor Day and running up to Election Day, the 44th President campaigned for candidates up and down the ballot in every region of the country. Much like Ike and JFK in 1962, Obama and Trump relished going against each other – although Obama proved more successful in his efforts than Eisenhower given that Democrats managed to flip the House.
Of course, it apparently wouldn’t be a midterm without a former President or First Lady releasing a memoir immediately afterward. Michelle Obama had the honors this time, unveiling her bestselling book in November 2018. In fact, it went so well for her the first time that she’s got another volume coming out this November 15th. While we don’t know for sure what the political landscape will look like on that day, it would be safe to say we’ll be hearing plenty from former President Donald Trump in the meantime.