Obama Beats Clinton: Biggest Upset Ever?

Chris Cillizza compares Barack Obama’s apparent victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination to various “upsets” in sports and pop culture history and wonders if this is the biggest upset in American political history.

Barack Obama Superman Pose

He cites Harry Truman’s win over Thomas Dewey in 1948, Jimmy Carter’s come-from-nowhere win in 1976, and then-upstart Bill Clinton’s capturing of the Democratic nomination over the likes of Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey, and Tom Harkin in 1992 as contenders for the title.

Truman over Dewey would seem the obvious choice here but, then again, he was the sitting president of the United States. Carter was an unknown but that was a huge advantage in the Throw-The-Bums-Out post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era. And the 1992 Democratic field was more known for who didn’t run than for who did.

While I predicted Clinton would capture the nomination, going with the safe choice, others, including my colleague Alex Knapp, forecast an Obama win. So it wasn’t totally unexpected.

If I were to choose a biggest upset in recent presidential politics, I’d go with 1992. Not, though, Bill Clinton’s win in a thin primary field but rather George H.W. Bush’s loss in November. A sitting president was at 90-plus percent approval in the aftermath of cruising to victory in a popular war. Most of the big guns in the Democratic Party sat the race out, figuring Bush’s re-election a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, Clinton had to go on “60 Minutes” to lie about the Gennifer Flowers scandal to save his candidacy. For a brief moment, independent novelty candidate Ross Perot was ahead of him in the national polls and there was even talk that Clinton would come in third and that the Democrats might have to engage in a petition drive to get on the ballot in 1996!

The biggest non-presidential upset, probably, was wrestler Jesse Ventura’s third party win to take the Minnesota governorship.

Really, though, I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as an “upset” in American politics. Political campaigns aren’t like sporting events, where teams show how good they are during a long regular season so that we have something to base the odds on. The idea that there are “upsets” in politics comes from the mistaken belief that polling in the year before an election has much to do with how people will actually vote when it matters.

Obama’s win this year is somewhat akin to the New England Patriots’ 2002 Super Bowl win. Nobody predicted, when the 2001-2 season started, that the Pats had a shot. Then again, who knew that Drew Bledsoe would go down and Tom Brady would come from nowhere to emerge as an elite quarterback? It took some luck — like a fumble against Oakland in the playoffs that was ruled an incomplete pass — and a good team surrounding him, but the unknown quantity got the job done against a better known field.

Clinton started this race with enormous name recognition and Obama was merely a “clean African-American” who could give a good speech. Given who the candidates turned out to be over a long race, it’s not surprising that he eeked out a narrow victory in the primaries.

Of course, as Jimmy Johnson noted once upon a time, there’s still one more game. Brady’s Patriots narrowly beat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, on the strength of an Adam Vinatieri field goal rather than heroics from the quarterback. McCain will be the underdog in this one, though.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Campaign 2008, Guns and Gun Control, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Marcia says:

    Upset? Are you kidding me? With all the money he had, anyone could have won.

  2. DL says:

    So much for the America is racist lie. It’s time to stop all those affirmative action programs -we have gone to the mountain and Obama’s miricle defeat of a powerful white person is proof.

  3. anjin-san says:

    With all the money he had, anyone could have won.

    Guess that explains Romney’s nomination.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Guess that explains Romney’s nomination.

    Not to mention reversing cause and effect…