A “dark horse” is a candidate for office for whom little is known or for whom expectations are low, but who then goes on to unexpectedly win or succeed.
While history is replete with examples of dark horse candidates who went on to win local, regional, state or national office, the term is most often used in the context of presidential politics.
As described by a local Massachusetts reporter: “In many ways the allure of the dark horse mirrors that of the American Dream: An unknown candidate, the little guy, overcomes incredible odds to pull a shocking victory from the hands of an establishment favorite.”
The term is borrowed from horse racing, where it was first used to describe a horse that was unknown to bettors and was therefore impossible to handicap.
From Benjamin Disraeli’s 1831 novel The Young Duke: “A dark horse which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.”
The first known political use of the term was in 1831, with the unlikely ascendancy of James K. Polk to the Presidency.
As noted by White House historians, in the particular case of Polk, his “dark horse” status was due to his unlikely nomination to higher office:
When Whig opponents changed “Who is James K. Polk” throughout the presidential election of 1844, it was more an attempt to influence perception than a reflection of reality. The image of Polk as an obscure protégé of Andrew Jackson stood in contract to the successful career of the nationally known governor of Tennessee and speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Polk’s ‘dark horse’ status was based not on his political obscurity, but on his unexpected selection by the Democratic Party.
As outlined in the Washington Post, the other nominees who started out as dark horses were:
“Horatio Seymour, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Warren Harding and John W. Davis. Of the five, Hayes, Garfield and Harding were elected president.
- Seymour, the former governor of New York, said over and over that he had no desire to be a candidate, but he nevertheless found himself nominated at the 1868 Democratic convention on the 22nd ballot.
- Ohio Gov. Hayes won the Republican nomination in 1876 on the seventh ballot.
- Congressman Garfield, an Ohio Republican who was the last person to go directly from the House to the White House, won the 1880 GOP nod on the 36th ballot.
- Harding was nominated during a 1920 smoke-filled room meeting in which Republican leaders settled on the Ohio senator on the 10th ballot.
- The 1924 Democratic convention was the longest in American history, going 103 ballots – and 17 days – before settling on former West Virginia congressman Davis.”
Often, Abraham Lincoln is considered a dark horse, in his case because he left the arena, only to return over a decade later:
Even Abraham Lincoln, who had left politics entirely after serving a term in Congress in the late 1840s, but would win the presidency in 1860, has sometimes been called a dark horse candidate.
In modern times, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were all in their own ways considered dark horses.