HomeHistoryUS History: Six "Dark Horse" Presidential Candidate Winners

US History: Six “Dark Horse” Presidential Candidate Winners

For those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘Dark Horse’ is often used to describe someone who ends up coming out of nowhere and is generally unknown to many Americans but is seen as a viable contender for one reason or another. The United States has seen dozens of dark horse candidates get their party’s nomination and while some weren’t so successful, others have gone on to obtain the highest office in the land in this article, I’ll be going over the six lesser-known candidates who went on to become commander and chief.


6. Franklin Pierce 

The issue of slavery was dividing the United States more than it’s ever had by the 1850’s with the two major parties: The Democrats and Whig Party having a hard time finding candidates that could appeal to the American people while also being able to keep the nation together for little while longer. 

Enter former Senator and U.S. Representative of New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce who had been out of the world of politics for many years but was seen as someone who could appeal to many Southerners thanks to many of his policies while also getting some support from the North as he lived in a Northern state. 

Pierce would secure the Democratic nomination and went on to battle the Whig Party nominee, Winfield Scott who was a general in the Mexican American War and someone Pierce served under during that conflict.

While the election itself wasn’t too exciting as the voter turnout was low compared the previous elections, Pierce did win the election in a landslide victory carrying 27 out of 31 states and getting 50.8% of the popular vote.


5. James Garfield

While the Democrats were divided on who to pick as a candidate in 1852 due to the issue of slavery, the Republicans were struggling to pick someone for the 1880 election as two warring factions had emerged within the party.

The GOP was divided between the Stalwarts (politicians who supported the belief of giving positions of power to friends and corrupt individuals) and the Half Breeds (politicians who believed positions should be given to people due to their merits and not for special favors).

After the 1880 Republican convention had deadlocked between the candidates supported by the Half Breeds and Stalwarts, an unexpected name was thrown into the mix in the form of James A. Garfield, a former Civil War veteran, Preacher and Representative from Ohio who was reluctant to run but was persuaded enough in the end and Garfield would end up getting the nomination.

Garfield was neither a Half Breed or a Stalwart which helped to make him a likable choice for the presidency and the American people at the time seemed to agree with this as Garfield won a very close election to become the 20th President in U.S. history. 


4. Warren G. Harding

Although his seen by many historians as one of the most corrupt presidents in U.S. History (at least by the standards of the time), newspaper man turn senator of Ohio turn eventual president Warren G. Harding was well liked by many Americans during his time, which would explain his election victory in 1920.

Harding was chosen by the Republican party bosses in a supposed smoke filled room simply as a compromise pick in order to break up the deadlock that was occurring within the GOP convention at the time.

After getting the nomination, Harding and his team ran on the slogan “Return to Normalcy” which meant bringing the United States back to the way things were before the craziness of World War one and the Progressive Era.

By the end of the election, Warren G. Harding won in a landslide against his Democratic opponent to become the 29th president of the United States.


3. James K. Polk

The very first ‘Dark Horse’, James Knox Polk won the nomination for the Democratic party in the election of 1844 as he was able to garner enough support for himself through his belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’ aka expansionist views of wanting acquire areas of land and spreading America’s influence however possible.

Polk, like all dark horse candidates had the advantage being unknown to much of the country so none of his flaws could be used against him, but that didn’t stop the opposition: The Whig Party from making funny of the little-known politician by saying things like “Who The Heck Is James K. Polk?”

Sure enough, by the time election came to an end the Whigs and the entire county knew exactly who James K. Polk was and that was the 11th president in U.S. history and the only one to willingly serve one term as commander and chief.


2. Jimmy Carter

Following the revelations of the Watergate Scandal under the Nixon administration, a large sense of mistrust within the government was rapid in the mid 1970’s and the American People were looking for a change.

By time the 76′ election rolled around, many establishment politicians including the Democrats looked determined to weather the storm and run for their party’s nomination, however they were all outshined by little known peanut farmer and one term governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter.

Carter was little known politician who ran on the idea of being honest and transparency as well as being a DC outsider, but as you can expect many didn’t take him seriously.

Following his success in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire Primary, Carter got his party’s nomination and defeated incumbent president, Gerald Ford in a close race to become the 39th president and the only Democrat elected to the high office between 1969-1992.


1. Donald Trump

While all of the previous entries had some kind of political experience before ascending to the White House, that cannot be said for the number one pick on this list.

In 2016, Reality TV star and Businessman, Donald J. Trump entered into the race hoping to get the Republican Party’s nomination for president despite neither the Democrats nor Republicans not taking his candidacy seriously. 

Eventually, after steamrolling through the primaries and insulting all of the other GOP candidates, Trump won the nomination and went on to challenge the former Secretary of State and former first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton for the presidency. To the surprise of many, Trump defeated Clinton to become 45th president in what many saw as the biggest presidential election upset since 1948.

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