Ten days before Donald Trump publicly announced his candidacy for president of the United States, an American Thoroughbred racehorse dominated the evening news.
On June 6, 2015, running away from seven rivals in the Belmont Stakes, American Pharaoh became the first horse in 37 years and just the 12th horse ever to win the Triple Crown. He also became the first horse ever to win the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
American Pharoah does it! He becomes the first horse to win the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Classic. pic.twitter.com/Bl57T6S7Ni
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 31, 2015
A study has shown that the outcome of a sports event can influence the result of a political election. Research conducted by economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Mo showed that when the home team wins the game before the election, the incumbent candidates can increase their share of the vote by 1.5 percent, while a loss had the opposite effect. The study looked at NCAA football games from 1946 to 2008. The effects on the results are increased even further if the game is considered an upset.
It is unclear from this study how a series of dramatic upsets, or surprises, across several sports, would affect the outcome of a single election. It could be argued that voters who are emotionally distraught after witnessing an unexpected sport upset might react irrationally. They might even choose to cast a “protest vote” against the candidate whom they view least favorably.
In 1970, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, lost in a shocking election upset to Conservative Edward Heath. Four days prior to the election, England’s football team had lost a World Cup quarter-final tie to West Germany.
Kier Radnedge, a young football reporter who watched the game, told BBC News he believes the outcome of the game may have affected the way some people voted.
“It deflated the mood in the nation,” Rednedge said. “Therefore, they looked for something new. Something new in that case was voting in a new government.”
American Pharaoh’s stunning achievement was the first in a long list of incredible sports upsets that occurred in 2015-16.
Roberta Vinci defeats No. 1 Serena Williams
Three months after American Pharaoh captured the imagination of millions, Serena Williams’s 33-match Grand Slam winning streak was snapped by Roberta Vinci, in what has been dubbed “the biggest upset in tennis history.” Williams was a 30-1 favorite to win the match.
Serena Williams was a 30-1 favorite to win. Roberta Vinci was a 12-1 underdog. pic.twitter.com/4hnAPQdAZv
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 11, 2015
Cavaliers overcome 3-1 deficit to beat Warriors
Even though he campaigned for Hillary Clinton, LeBron James’ greatest contribution to the 2016 election may have come months earlier.
Down 3 games to 1 to the defending champion Warriors, LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to its first NBA title in franchise history. The Cavaliers were the first team in NBA Finals history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship.
In NBA history, 33 teams have fallen behind 3-1 in the #NBAFinals.
Only one is a champion. pic.twitter.com/FS3BzTr2Fv
— ESPN (@espn) June 20, 2016
Chicago Cubs win the World Series, ending 108-year drought
On November 2, less than one week before the 2016 presidential election, the Chicago Cubs became only the sixth team in MLB history to fight back from a 3-1 deficit to win it all.
In an epic Game 7 thriller, the Cubs outlasted the Cleveland Indians to win the 2016 World Series – ending a 108-year championship drought in the process. Finally, the curse was lifted.
— IBTimes Sport (@IBTimesUKSport) November 3, 2016
Despite happening after the election, New England’s historic overtime comeback in Super Bowl LI perfectly encapsulated the past year and a half of sports surprises.
Led by quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots set a Super Bowl record for being the first team to overcome a 25-point deficit to win the championship, and only the fifth team since 1991 to win an NFL game after trailing by 25 or more points.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) February 9, 2017
Reflecting on the result of the 2016 presidential election, Clinton communication director Jennifer Palmieri called it “the most devastating loss in the history of American politics.”
Palmieri may be right, but she shouldn’t be surprised.
“Almost every major forecasting aggregator, including FiveThirtyEight, RealClearPolitics, The New York Times, and HuffPost Pollster, heavily favored a Clinton victory in the lead-up to Tuesday’s race,” writes Business Insider’s Maxwell Tani.
What so many pundits and pollsters forgot is that America loves rooting for the underdog.
Democrats ignored it. Republicans doubted it. Donald Trump embraced it.
It truly was a year of surprises.