Ron Paul And A Brief History Of Dark Horse Candidates

So, Ron Paul is leading in Iowa. That isn’t too surprising. I had written a couple of weeks ago that he would probably lead the pack once Newt Gingrich’s numbers started to wain.

The problem with Gingrich is that his support–like support for Cain, Perry and Bachmann–has always been paper thin.

Gingrich started his campaign by talking about “grass-roots support” that really wasn’t there and only garnered high poll numbers after other candidates imploded.

Paul’s support has always been real, but limited.

That’s why I have written that I don’t believe he would ever be able to beat President Obama in the general election. That’s too bad, because I believe most of what Paul believes and I’m glad that he is doing well in Iowa.

He has moved the debate toward the more libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which I appreciate.

I believe that his campaign will ultimately peter-out in places like New Hampshire, but Paul’s rise started me thinking about dark horse candidates and how much fun it is to watch one pull ahead of the establishment pack.

With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to briefly delve into dark horses that have actually made it to the presidency.

The first was James K. Polk, elected president way back in 1844. It was in 1844 that the term “dark horse” -meaning a horse that no one bet on that won a literal horse race –was first used.

Polk, who was a former Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee, initially hoped to be nominated as vice president, knowing he could never make it all the way to the top of the Democratic ticket.

The leading contender in 1844 was former-President Martin Van Buren.

Van Buren’s problem was that he didn’t want slavery to expand and the Democratic Party was the slave party. The big issue of the day, linked to the expansion of slavery, was annexation of Texas, which Polk supported.

Van Buren didn’t want to make Texas part of the U.S. and that lost him even more Democratic support, including that of former President Andrew Jackson. Jackson, still pretty popular, was the man on whose coat-tail Van Buren had ridden to the presidency in an earlier election.

Eight ballots were cast among delegates at the Democratic convention before Polk was chosen among the slate of contenders as a compromise candidate. Polk went on to beat Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, for the presidency by winning 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105. In the popular vote, Polk only won by 39,000 of the 2.6 million cast.

The next dark horse that ascended to the presidency was Franklin Pierce, elected our 14th president in 1852. Pierce was a New Hampshire Democrat who had served in the House of Representatives and  in the Senate. In 1852, no one gave him a shot at making it to the presidency because he had not held elected office in a decade. Strange as it sounds, Pierce was chosen over more popular candidates because most people didn’t know where he stood on the most controversial issue to the day–again slavery.

Pierce was the compromise candidate at convention on the 35th ballot. He had been a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War and delegates thought that his nomination would knock the wind out of the sales of the Whig candidate, Gen. Winfield Scott, also a hero of the war.

With two candidates running on similar platforms in the general election, both war heroes, it basically came down to a contest of personalities and Pierce won the the presidency. It might have been that Pierce was that much more likable or that the Democrats had such a catchy campaign slogan that year –“We Polked You in 1844; We’ll Pierce You in 1852.”



After Pierce, Abraham Lincoln became maybe the most unlikely dark horse of all time–emerging from the fledgling Republican Party to grab the presidency. Lincoln of Illinois was nominated the Republican candidate by touting his frontier Kentucky upbringing and became the unlikely winner in 1860 running against four major candidates representing four different parties.

It was believed that Lincoln, a moderate on the slavery issue, could keep the union together on an issue that had been threatening to tear it apart for decades.

If you didn’t already know, it didn’t quite work out that way.




Dark horse Rutherford B. Hayes became our 19th president in 1876 in one of the most contested elections in our history.

Hayes was a Civil War hero, Republican congressman and governor of Ohio when he decided to run for president. He was a long-shot, but ultimately was chosen as the Republican candidate at convention on the seventh ballot when delegates were split between other contenders.

No one was more surprised than Hayes that he had won. When he was told that Rep. William A. Wheeler  of New York had been chosen as the vice presidential candidate, Hayes showed how clueless he really was by saying, “I am ashamed to say: who is Wheeler?” Can you imagine what today’s Democrats would do with a statement like that today from the Republican standard-bearer?

Hayes faced Gov. Samuel J. Tilden of New York in the general election. Electoral votes from three states–Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina–remained contested months after the November election.

Congress submitted the matter to a bi-partisan Electoral Committee that also couldn’t make up its mind. With the March 4 inauguration day looming, a deal was finally cut in which southern Democrats on the committee threw their support to Hayes in return for a promise to end Reconstruction in the South.

The next president, Republican James A. Garfield, was also a dark horse from Ohio.

Delegates at the convention still had not gotten their act together by 1880 and were locked between candidates John Sherman, former-President Ulysses S. Grant-whom Garfield endorsed–and James Blaire.

Garfield, who had served nine consecutive terms in the House, was evenutally chosen as the Republican candidate on the 34th ballot. Garfield has expected to advance from the House to the Senate–this was back when state’s legislatures chose their senators–because he had just been elected to the Senate. When he beat Winfield Scott Hancock in the 1880 presidential election, he was a sitting representative, senator-elect and president-elect all at the same time.

This brings us to Republican Warren Harding, the 20th Century’s only dark horse president and the last one we have ever had.

Harding was a senator from Ohio–what is it about Ohio and dark horses?–who won the 1920 presidential election in 1920. Going into the convention, he had barely raised any money and only won 39 delegates to front-runner Leonard Wood, who had 124.

The term “smoke filled room” supposedly comes from the deal that was hashed out among Republican Party bosses in a back room at the Chicago convention before Harding was chosen on the tenth ballot.

Harding won the presidency against Gov. James M. Cox, also from Ohio.

Running at the bottom of the Democratic presidential ticket was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Harding’s win was a referendum on the progressive era of Woodrow Wilson with the promise of a return to “laissez faire” economics that brought on the Roaring 20s.

You see, dark horse are rare but that do happen and some have made it all the way to the presidency. I don’t expect this to happen with Ron Paul, but much has changed on the political landscape since Obama was elected and, really, anything could happen.

If Paul were to pull off a miracle and become the Republican nominee, he would have my support. I would like to send Obama back to Chicago on the horse he rode in on, even if it takes a dark horse to do it.






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