Document Type

Honors Project

First Advisor

Dr. Robert Andersen

Degree Award Date

Spring 2000


Dark Horse Candidates, Presidential Campaigns


History | Political History | United States History


The guiding thesis of this paper is that the opportunities for political dark horses in American presidential campaigns have significantly diminished over the last century. The shift in focus by political parties, from a system in which nominating conventions were of chief importance, to one in which the individual state primaries are key, has created a system in which it is much harder for dark horse candidates to emerge and be successful. In coming to this conclusion, the purpose of this paper will four-fold. The first task is to define the term "dark horse" and explore its evolution and relevance to twentieth-century American presidential campaigns. The second objective will be to examine the political processes by which these candidates are selected. This paper will separate the campaigns of the past century into two eras, based on the importance of each nominating system. The first era will be the convention era, focusing on the campaigns taking place between 1900 and 1968. The next era is the Primary era, focusing on the elections taking place between 1972 and 1992. This section will examine how these methods have evolved over the course of the twentieth-century and what their effect on dark horse candidates has been. The third goal of this paper will be to apply this term to the twenty-four American presidential elections between 1900 and 1992. In doing this we will determine which candidates qualify for the designation of "dark horse" and why they deserve this label. This section will examine the relative successes and failures of the twentieth-century dark horses and try to determine the ca uses for these results. The final section of this paper will look at the role of the dark horse candidate in today's political scene. This section will look at what the term "dark horse" means in today's political landscape and whether today's dark horses are inherently different that past dark horses. This section will also attempt to determine what factors are conducive or restrictive to the emergence of dark horse candidates. Thus, the underlying goals of this paper are to clarify what is meant by the term "dark horse" and to provide a greater understanding of how dark horse candidates evolve and contribute to the political landscape. The end result is to determine the effectiveness of the presidential selection process in choosing dark horse candidates and whether the current system actually prevents dark horse candidates from competing.