Presidential Election Upsets Ranked

Many Presidential elections are decided… long before the votes are cast.  Technology makes predicting election results an acceptable part of the modern campaign cycle.  Historical analysis provides election scorecards on races prior to modern media technology.  Despite all the prognostication, there are several key elections which defied expectations.

5.  1892–  Grover Cleveland became the first candidate to be nominated by a party three times and was seeking his second (non-consecutive) term.  Benjamin Harrison was a solid, but uninspiring incumbent who had narrowly defeated Cleveland four years earlier.  Republicans spent millions in a campaign centered on currency policy.  Harrison enlisted allies like Ohio Governor William McKinley but was unable to campaign personally because of the death of his wife in October, 1892.  Cleveland overcame the powerful Republican campaign and the sympathetic figure cut by his opponent to win easily in what must be considered an upset.

4.  1960–  John F. Kennedy was young and relatively inexperienced when he challenged two-term Vice President, Richard Nixon.  The Cold War was the dominant issue of the day and no one seemed to have stronger anticommunist credentials than Nixon.  Kennedy attacked the failures of the Eisenhower administration including the U2 incident and the fall of Cuba to Castro’s communists.  He even went as far as to fabricate statistics to accuse Nixon and Eisenhower of allowing the Soviets to pull ahead in the arms race.  Kennedy pulled out one of the narrowest victories of the 20th century.  Illinois was the swing state and Kennedy’s victory there has long been disputed.  Kennedy became the youngest man elected President and used  current technology to secure the upset.

3.  1844–  The first election to feature a dark-horse candidate, James K. Polk emerged from the pack and upset perennial challenger Henry Clay.  Democrats were hoping to restore the Jacksonian policies that had them in power for over a decade.  Finding a successor to Jackson had proven impossible, but Polk emerged from an uninspired field to win the nomination.  The Whigs nominated their ideological leader, Henry Clay (his 4th presidential run.)  The annexation of Texas and westward expansion dominated the campaign and Polk presented a strong expansionist platform.  Clay was better known, but the American people were ready for expansion and embraced Polk’s fiery rhetoric.

2.  1824–  Andrew Jackson rode the wave of his popularity to what seemed to be an election victory.  Regional voting results divided the electoral count so no candidate secured a majority of the votes.  Jackson won a plurality in the electoral and popular results.  The matter was turned over to the House of Representatives where Henry Clay used his influence to secure the election for John Quincy Adams.  In return, Adams named Clay as his Secretary of State.  Jackson claimed collusion by his arch-enemy Clay and publicly denounced the “Corrupt Bargain.”   Adams’ victory was a clear upset over the wildly popular Jackson.

1.  1948–  Discussed in an earlier post, Truman’s victory was the greatest upset in Presidential election history.  Thomas Dewey enjoyed comfortable leads in almost every national poll.  This caused Dewey to run an uninspired campaign, rarely leaving his home state of New York.  Truman launched an aggressive rail campaign across the country, taking the fight to all Republicans, not just Dewey.  Truman won the key states of Ohio, Illinois, and California by less than 1%.  The pro-Republican Chicago Daily Tribune made sure that Truman’s victory became iconic.

One thought on “Presidential Election Upsets Ranked

  1. I would think that 2016 would rank up there, and you could make an argument for 1988, everyone thought that Dukakis had it in the bag during the summer.


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