8 Most Surprising Election Upsets

In American politics, there are no sure things. Candidate who seem to be the inevitable winners in contests can lose popular support — and elections — overnight.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


In American politics, there are no sure things. Candidates who seem to be the inevitable winners in contests can lose popular support — and elections — overnight.  Here are our picks for the eight most surprising upsets in American elections.

1. John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson (Library of Congress)

Because neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson had the majority of electoral votes in the 1824 election, the House of Representatives would decide the winner. Speaker of the House Henry Clay despised Andrew Jackson. He went among the congressmen, drumming up support for Adams, who won the House vote and thus the presidency. Jackson was furious when Adams turned around and appointed Clay Secretary of State. Vengeance was his, though, when he beat Adams for the presidency four years later in what was considered to be one of the dirtiest campaigns ever.

2. John Polk vs. Henry Clay

A campaign banner of James Polk and his running mate, George Dallas. (Library of Congress)

In 1844, the divided Democratic party settled on a compromise presidential candidate, James Polk of Tennessee. His opponent was the serial candidate, Henry Clay, in his fourth bid for the White House. Clay was a dynamic speaker, politically well connected, experienced, and extremely popular. On the other hand, the Democratic convention worked its way through nine ballots before finally nominating Polk, a man most people had never heard of. Yet Polk won because he campaigned on annexing western land to the union. Clay tried to walk a fine line between opposing the annexation of slave-holding Texas (which lost him support in the South) and being a slave owner himself (which lost him support in the North). Polk beat Clay by less than 40,000 votes.

3. Abraham Lincoln vs. William Seward

In 1860, the Republicans expected to win the presidency with their strong candidate, William H. Seward, a polished, influential former governor and senator from New York. His only serious rival for the party’s nomination was Abraham Lincoln, a politician from the back-woods state of Illinois who was little known in the powerful eastern states. But Lincoln proved the better politician. As a native son, he secured all the votes from the Illinois delegates. His campaign workers made sure to seat Lincoln supporters close to critical delegations. They printed counterfeit admission tickets to the convention to pack the hall with Lincoln backers and leave little room for Seward’s supporters. Through these tactics and back-room bargaining, Lincoln gained the nomination. In November he won the presidency because the anti-Republican votes were divided between three pro-slavery candidates.

4. Harry Truman vs. Thomas Dewey

Harry Truman (Library of Congress)

Well into election night, it appeared that Republican Thomas Dewey would take the presidency away from incumbent president Harry Truman. By late summer, Dewey’s 49% lead among likely voters overshadowed Truman’s 36%. But Truman campaigned vigorously, and by October that gap had narrowed to 50% to 45%. On election night, Truman gained an early lead that he never lost. The Chicago Tribune had backed Dewey and was so confident of his win that, before the polls closed, they printed that infamous front page with Dewey’s win as their headline.

5. Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter

Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election in a definitive and unprecedented landslide: 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. But a week earlier, Reagan’s victory was anything but assured. With just one week to go before the 1980 election, incumbent president Jimmy Carter had a slim but definite lead, despite America’s concerns about the economy and the Iran hostage crisis. But Reagan turned things around with his polished performance in the campaign’s one televised debate, which had one of the highest TV ratings of any show in the previous decade. The debate is remembered for Reagan’s quips, “There you go again,” and “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

6. Paul Wellstone vs. Rudy Boschwitz

Paul Wellstone was as under an underdog as has been seen in American politics. He was a virtual unknown in Minnesota where he was running for senator in 1990. He was a college professor with no prior experience in government, and his underfunded campaign was outspent 7-to-1 by his opponent. But he used his disadvantages to his strength, campaigning in a beat-up school bus wearing a work shirt and jeans, and running low-budget, humorous ads. He was helped when his opponents sent out a mud-slinging letter close to election day. He remained in office until his death in a plane crash in 2002.

7. Lisa Murkowski vs. Joe Miller

In 2010, incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary for Alaska’s senate seat to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller. Undaunted, she asked voters to write in her name on their ballots. 101,091 Alaskans did so, and Murkowski beat her opponent by several thousand votes. After months of legal wrangling over name misspellings, Murkowski was finally declared the winner in late December. She was the first senator in 50 years to win a write-in campaign — since Strom Thurmond in 1954.

8. Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump was a surprise winner both of the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016. Early in the campaign, some dismissed him as a novelty candidate. But straight talking alpha-male celebrities have successfully appealed to populist sentiment before. Consider ex-wrestler/Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and action star/California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump must have felt all too familiar. She had been considered the natural choice in 2008 as well, but lost the Democratic primary to another outsider, Illinois junior senator Barack Obama.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *