Everybody else but the Dark Horse (or just the two main rivals) cheated, leaving this person to win by default.
A common manifestation of this trope involves the protagonist of the story as the judge in a contest, forced to choose between two people, each of whom is extremely important to him (say, a love interest and a best friend or relative). He will often attempt to dodge the difficult decision by Taking A Third Option and ignoring both choices in favor of someone totally different (who may or may not be actually deserving of the honor).
Often, though not always, the third competitor who wins the award is a throw away character completely out of the blue, who the audience may not have even known was in the competition until the end or, in fact, may have never seen before (or since). And even if they were seen, their performance may have been inferior to either of the rivals, even after you factor in their rivalry.
Obviously, this is Truth in Television.
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A variation is used in commercials, when a perennial also-ran in the market wants to raise its profile in the mind of the consumer. The commercial presents a story in which the top two brands are fighting it out, but the third brand pulls a surprise win. Rarely does this actually pull the company in question into the top two, but it can get it recognized as the underdog.
7up did this, with Coke and Pepsi trucks drag racing and being overtaken by the 7up truck.
Snapple took this a step further by designing an entire ad campaign celebrating their status as the #3 beverage company in the U.S.—because "unlike #1 and 2, 3 knows not everyone likes the same thing"—never mind that the #1 (Coke) and #2 (Pepsi) companies also make more than one product.
DHL did a series in which UPS and FedEx drivers are in a race, but it's futile, because the DHL truck was ahead of them all the time.
A priceless Super Bowl Coke commercial where Macy Balloons of Stewie and Underdog are fighting (aka bumping into each other) in order to get that balloon of a coke bottle. Eventually, the bottle starts to float away, both characters turn and see a round shape on the horizon. It's CHARLIEBROWN, who then wins the prize.
The Dan vs. Dave Olympic campaign by Reebok was derailed by this trope. More below in "Sport". The Aesop? Don't count your athletes until they've qualified.
Anime and Manga
In an episode of Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch, the Mermaid Princesses and Dark Lovers face off in a beauty contest, each side vaguely suspecting the other's identities. They all get beaten out by some random girl named Caren... who turns up again soon after, revealed to be not so random after all.
A filler episode of Ranma 1/2 had a go-kart race with many different rivalries, but Nabiki and Kasumi won by driving conservatively while the other racers got into one of their typical fights and finally blew themselves off the road (literally). Another episode had Ranma-chan, Akane, Ukyo, Kodachi, Shampoo and Tsubasa enter a beauty contest organized by Nabiki for various reasons. The winner? Kasumi, who was acting as the assistant and not actually taking part in the contest.
Rune Soldier Louie Rune Soldier Louie has a filler episode where Louie and his mentor/rival Genie compete to see who can finish a race first. They spend so much time fighting that another rival's horse finishes first ( A White one, to confust things.
Tenchi Universe has an episode where the girls enter a swimsuit competition, naturally with emphasis on the rivalry between Ayeka and Ryoko. Nagi wins with a last minute entry.
It became a semi-running joke in both Tenchi Muyo and Tenchi Universe to have Ayeka and Ryoko (and sometimes the other girls) competing fiercely to tend to a wounded Tenchi, only to be beaten to the punch by Sasami when they weren't looking.
The ending of the YuYu Hakusho series is like this. The three demon factions competing for supremacy are Raizen's (led by Yusuke), Yomi's, and Mukuro's. Yusuke loses, but the fighting has weakened the others to the point where an unknown demon (Enki), uninterested in the factional fighting, wins.
Ookami-san has a beauty contest in which Otohime and Mimi are competing. Mimi places dead last with 0 votes and Otohime gets only 1 vote, while a character who won't be important until later wins.
Of course, this was all Exactly As Planned by the other members of the Otogi Bank. Otohime's one vote was from Urashima, the guy Otohime and Mimi were fighting over in the first place, to remind her what's really important. The character who actually won was a ringer thrown in by Otogi Bank.
In Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the Miss Macross contest appears to be in the bag for famous actress Jamis Merin, with Roy Focker going as far as suggesting that the whole contest was just a publicity stunt for her (or else she'd have been a judge rather than a contestant). However, Minmay ends up winning, likely due to the fact that the audience is full of soldiers who frequent her restaurant.
The Chunin Selection Exam reunites the protagonists and many genins from every ninja villages to be promoted to a higher rank. It was canceled during the third trial when Suna and Oto suddenly assault Konoha. In the end nobody reaches Chunin except Shikamaru who gave up during the third trial thinking he had no chance of winning over his adversary, Termari. Two ninja note that they thought it was a wise decision compared with Naruto (the main character) and Neji (considered the strongest Genin in the village) fighting until they were almost exhausted.
The omake Ramen Eating Contest leaves Naruto in third place. Yamato, who doesn't like oily foods such as ramen, out-eats Narutonote who ate 30 bowls by one bowl, and Hinata wins after eating 46 bowls.
The Grand Prix racing episode in Kirby of the Stars. Instead of Kirby, Tiff and Tuff, or King Dedede winning the race, it was the Mayor who won who caught up being several laps behind.
By the time the Grand Finale of Neon Genesis Evangelion has begun, the series has been revealed to be a battle between an Ancient Conspiracy called SEELE and its less evil offshoot, NERV. Both want to initiate the apocalypse because they believe humanity cannot survive otherwise. However, due primarily to the head of NERV's cruel treatment of his son, Shinji Ikari, and a startling number of Shinji's friends dying in horrible ways, Shinji himself ends up being the one to initiate ThirdImpact. And then, essentially, everybody dies. Hey, whoever said that a Darkhorse Victory was always funny or happy?
This is essentially how the protagonists' school advances to Nationals in Saki. The audience was expecting a titanic clash between Kazekoshi and Ryuumonbuchi, but a bunch of nobodiesnote Okay, not really— Nodoka has been in the competitive scene for a while, while Saki is... Teru's sister. snatch the ticket.
The heroines of Ore no Kanojo to Osananajimi ga Shuraba Sugiru enter an "expressing your love" contest as a thinly-veiled culmination of their competition for Eita's affection. They all make uniquely dramatic and sappy performances, but they all lose to a random little girl who talked about how much she loved her dad.
Chapter 17 of Daily Life with Monster Girl has Miia challenge Meron to a swimming race. While the mermaid is the obvious favorite, Miia does an excellent job of keeping up with her. However, it turns out that the heated pool isn't quite warm enough for the cold-blooded Miia and chlorine really does a number on Meron. So the winner is; Cerea, who was ignored for the entire race.
Dream 9 Super Collaboration Special: Mr. Satan ends up winning the fighting portion of the contest as Goku, Luffy and Toriko wind up destroying the ring and knocking themselves out of bounds, while Mr. Satan just barely winds up starting on the only patch of the ring still intact.
The point of the name "Dark Horse Comics" is to invoke this trope's thought in buyers. It's not really working, and there's even some debate about how much of a "dark horse" the fourth-biggest comics company in the U.S. today is.
An issue of Archie Comics had Archie as one of the judges of a swimsuit competition. Both Betty and Veronica manipulate him into promising them his support in the contest. Moose also intimidates him into supporting his girlfriend, Midge. In the end a fourth girl wins. Betty, Veronica and Moose are all about to pound Archie, but he defuses the situation by showing them his clipboard, proving that he did his best to help them by giving them all an "A" grade. His skin seems saved until the girl who won comes by to thank him for tipping the scale in her favor with a grade of "A+ ". The story ends with Archie running for his life.
Another Archie story involves a track meet between several schools. Riverdale finishes second in every single event while two rival schools alternate beating them out for first. In the end, however, Riverdale, thanks to all its second place finishes, wins the meet on total points.
Because they don't want to choose between Reggie and Archie for a school election, Betty and Veronica try to throw Jughead in for the sake of a darkhorse. He does win, but refuses to accept the title because he didn't want to run in the first place.
In Udon Comics' Street Fighter, Karin tries to use a hot dog-eating contest to trick Sakura into fighting her with a full stomach. As the contest degenerates into an actual fight when Sakura's friends from Rival Schools step in, E. Honda ends the contest by choosing the winner to be Karin's butler Ishizaki, who happened to have eaten more than the both of them combined.
In PS238, the students are supposed to vote between USA Patriot Act and American Eagle, two annoying, politically-supported heroes, for "Official Protector of Student Liberty and Guardian of Constitutional Values." Nobody likes either of them, so they all write in Tyler's name instead, figuring that it would be a good consolation prize to someone without superpowers. For their part, the official candidates wind up being Graceful Losers (because they certainly support democracy, after all).
Steve McQueen's classic movie Le Mans features a double dose of this. McQueen crashes his original car halfway through the race and is out. Then he takes over his teammate's car, and still finishes second to an almost unnoticed third Porsche. The German villain finishes third. McQueen famously flicks a playful 'V' sign to the German guy after the finish.
In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the climactic race has hero Ricky Bobby and the antagonist Jean Girard competing so fiercely with each other that they ultimately get themselves disqualified. The winner of the race ends up being Ricky's best friend and perennial runner-up Cal Naughton, Jr—much to Ricky's pleasure, and he finally treats his old friend like an equal.
High School Musical 3 has a supposed battle between Troy and Sharpay for a Juilliard scholarship (although Troy's application was submitted behind his back). The actual scholarship goes to Ryan and Kelsi.
In Hairspray, rivals Amber von Tussle and Tracy Turnblad were both in the Miss Teen Hairspray contest. In the musical film version Little Inez wins instead. Still a victory for Tracy.
Especiailly considering the fact that not only was Tracy trying to integrate The Corny Collins Show after Velma, Amber's mother, put an end to the monthly "Negro Day" show, but also Little Inez's involvement in the contest put a monkey wrench on Velma's plan to fix the contest so that Amber will win.
In Surf's Up protagonist Cody is up against Jerk Jock Tank in the finals, with Chicken Joe on the side basically oblivious to the fact that he's even in the contest. Tank's constant efforts to take down Cody result in Joe winning, much to his surprise.
Which comes with a bit of a Zen Genius Bonus: surfing was created just as a way of enjoying yourself, to the point that trying to make a competition of it is Completely Missing the Point. So Joe, being too busy having fun to even notice there's a contest happening, in fact also wins in the very purest sense.
Smile concerns a beauty pageant, and while a number of the contestants are given a spotlight in the story, the actual winner is a character who wasn't featured at all. In fact, the girl given the most screentime doesn't even place.
The Best Man is an extremely realistic depiction of a political convention, where the nomination for the party's Presidential candidate will clearly go to either high-minded patrician candidate Henry Fonda or dirty-pool working-class candidate Cliff Robertson. In a last-minute plot twist, the nomination ends up going to a third candidate who went barely noticed earlier.
The documentary Murderball focuses on the rivalry between the USA and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams. At the 2004 Paralympic games, Canada beats the USA team. And then Canada still loses overall to New Zealand.
The Family Channel's made-for-TV movie Christmas Every Day features a take on this, where the main character rigs a jelly bean counting contest to keep his rival from winning later days of the film's "Groundhog Day" Loop, first himself, and then on the final repeat of the day a poor family that had only been briefly seen early on so they can win the prize.
Davita's Harp: The yeshiva's top contenders for an overall academic award are Davita and a boy named Reuven Malter. It turns out that Davita deserves it, but the school won't recognize her because she's a girl and parents would stop sending their sons to the school. Reuven declines the award because he didn't really earn it, and it ends up going to some other male student, whose name we never hear.
Young adult fiction example: in Here She Is, Miss Teeny-Wonderful, the plot mostly focuses on the tomboyish protagonist's rivalry with a pair of obnoxious, underhanded twins for the title of Miss Teeny-Wonderful. Naturally, they lose, but so does the protagonist. She does at least beat them, by placing second where they get third. The title goes to a girl the audience hadn't even met before.
Only really works on the surface, though. Cao Cao's kids who were chosen to rule seem to have been incompetent in some way or other, angering Sima Yi. Yi was fiercely loyal to Caos Cao and Pi, however. And the popular and effective heroism of Liu Bei and his Tiger Generals overrode much of the military success of Wu in peoples' minds. (Wu was much more powerful and had far more experienced generals and warriors. Shu was the 'Perot' in the mix, a peasant/militia army like the Americans at the time of the Revolutionary War.)
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Night's Watch election is won by someone who wasn't even running in the first round of voting (Jon Snow) because two major contenders give their support to him to prevent Smug Snake Janos Slynt from winning.
This also happens in The Wheel of Time, when Egwene, a mere Accepted, is raised Amyrlin because the two main contestants fear the other might win. To most, she was supposed to be a puppet or a sacrificial lamb, but she turned out to be very good at her job.
A more lethal variant than usual occurs in Warrior Cats. The whole first arc was focused on the rivalry between Firestar and Tigerstar. Then, when the final book of the arc, The Darkest Hour reached their final showdown, Tigerstar revealed that he had an ally named Scourge, who proceeded to kill both Firestar and Tigerstar. Fortunately, Firestar came back from the dead, or else Scourge would have ruled the whole forest.
Fletcher Knebel's Dark Horse plays with this. There's a "dark horse", but he doesn't end up winning.
The Trope Namer is Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke, published in 1831. Disraeli's protagonist, the Duke of St. James, attends a horse race with a surprise finish: "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."
Live Action Television
The Brady Bunch: Judge Greg picked a third girl instead of Marcia or his girlfriend in a cheerleading tryout. Marcia is very understanding and concedes that Greg made the right decision, but the girlfriend dumps him, leading Greg to conclude that she was only dating him so she could win the competition.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Homecoming": Buffy and Cordelia are competing viciously for the title of Homecoming Queen and are then forced to work together to defeat some demons/villains on the night of Homecoming. They've put their differences behind them by the end of the night, and it's announced that there's a tie for Homecoming Queen... but it's not between those two as one might expect, as it turns out that the two other girls competing, Holly and Michelle, have tied for the title.
In the Disney Channel Original Movie Camp Rock, Peggy, the girl that Rich Bitch / Alpha Bitch Tess has been belittling the entire movie, wins the "Final Jam" competition over Tess and main protagonist Mitchie (though Mitchie did get the guy in the end).
Season one of Dawson's Creek has this with a beauty contest in which Joey and the Alpha Bitch compete.
On Welcome Freshmen, Erin Kelly is disgusted with the fact that a super-slick politician-in-training will likely become class president, with only disgusting slob Billy Cushman providing competition. She enters the race, but is immediately hit with so much negative campaigning that she eventually has no choice but to go negative in response. They both end up so damaged that Cushman wins.
Detention, "The Man with the Golden Brain": The smartest kids in detention (twin sisters, to boot) were disqualified from a Spelling Bee as one of them has butted into the other's turn.
Similar to the Buffy entry, in the Frasier episode "And the Whimper Is," Frasier fights for a Sea Bee award, but finds out that one of his three competitors is an esteemed talk show host, who is retiring and has never won the award. Frasier is momentarily thrilled to learn there is a tie, but of course, it is between the other two competitors.
The Golden Girls, episode "The Flu," sees Blanche, Dorothy and Rose fighting over which of the three of them will win the Volunteer of the Year award. Naturally, Sophia wins.
Greek, "The Popular Vote": It's Frannie vs. Casey for the Zeta Beta presidency, and they go positively Rovian on each other (though Casey takes the high road near the end). When the votes are counted, the winner is...Ashleigh, Casey's best friend.
In the Muppets Valentine Show, Kermit has to fight a giant rat for Miss Mousey's affection. And then she goes with another guy with the cool motorcycle.
The Office: Michael, Jim, and Karen are all competing for a job at corporate, which goes to Ryan, who had been interviewing for the job in secret. This fact was not revealed until the tag at the end of the episode.
In the Scrubs episode My Life In Four Cameras, each of the main characters is trying to win a talent competition to save a popular cafeteria worker's job... the cafeteria worker himself wins the contest.
Except it turns out the whole episode was J.D. fantasising about Scrubs being like a happy-go-lucky sitcom where Status Quo Is God. The cafeteria worker loses his job in real life.
Seacht ended like this - after the characters spend the entire episode trying to win a music contract, complete with all sorts of blackmail and behind-the-scenes shaggery, the winner is somebody who had never appeared in the series before the last five minutes. Lampshaded when Brian asked who the f*** this was.
Small Wonder, "Little Miss Shopping Mall": Vicki and Harriet (perennial rivals again!) both lose to Ellen Sue Beasley, whose parents own the shopping mall and are judging the contest. And it's a Crack Defeat too, since Beasley was clearly outclassed by Vicki.
The Weird Al Show: Weird Al and perennial rival Uncle Bobby both lose the TV Host of the Year competition to senile, ukelele-playing puppet man Fred Huggins, another kids show host, which provides the Aesop for the story.
Played with in Mash. Father Mulcahy turned out to have some gambling skills, and he used it to anticipate a game of bridge, by betting on Potter's and Winchester's partners, not the guys themselves. Fortunately, he used the winnings for charitable work.
For pretty much the entire eighth season of American Idol, nearly everyone declared that the winner would be either Danny Gokey or Adam Lambert. In the end, Adam beat Danny, but both were beaten by Kris Allen.
In an episode of Seinfeld, George has a chance to score a terrific apartment, but learns that the tenant board wants to give it to an Andrea Doria survivor instead. George works laboriously to prove that his life has contained more suffering and hardship than that of the shipwreck survivor. He succeeds, as his tales of the mishaps he endured in previous episodes leave the tenant board in tears. In the end, however, Elaine's boyfriend gets the apartment by giving the super a fifty dollar bribe.
Remember WENN used the same twist as Buffy and Frasier (see above) in an episode where Jeff and Scott competed for the "Golden Lobe" award.
In an episode of Eureka, this happens when voting for town mayor. The competition is between Lucas (Zoe's boyfriend), Vincent (Town cafe owner), and a new character who's a weatherman. Guess who wins. contestant #4, Henry (who didn't even know he was running.
The "Final 3" on The Amazing Race tends to come down to two teams racing for the million dollars, while the third team has no chance at all of winning. In Season 16, those two teams were expected to be Fan Favorites Jet & Cord and Scrappies Brent & Caite, with brothers Dan & Jordan just along for the ride. The fanbase was legitimately shocked when Dan & Jordan ran a perfect final leg to pull out the victory.
Season 21 featured this Final Three: Jaymes and James, who had run a strongly consistent race throughout, Trey and Lexi, who had a couple of victories and were likely the strongest team remaining, and Josh and Brent, who had never won a single leg and in fact faced elimination at least three times. While not a perfect run, Josh and Brent caught a couple of lucky breaks, claimed a victory in the last task and ended up winning the $1 million dollars.
Boardwalk Empire had Nucky go to the 1920 National Republican Convention in Chicago as par to the New Jersey delegation. He quickly realizes that the two front runners will deadlock and quickly makes a deal with Warren Harding's campaign manager to throw the New Jersey votes to Harding if the vote goes past the third ballot. Harding then wins the nomination on the tenth ballot and Nucky not only gets the support of the future President but also thwarts Senator Edge (who double crossed Nucky on a road fund bill) from becoming Vice President.
Episode 8 of Leonardo is about a painting contest organised by the Duke of Florence. It's presented as all about Leo and his rival Michelangelo. The winner is Leo's friend Tomaso.
In an episode of Lizzie McGuire, the main character and Claire go against each other in a school election. The winner ended up being the third candidate Tudgeman, who only won because he ate worms in exchange for votes (which he even acknowledges in his acceptance speech).
In The Red Green Show episode "The Folk Art Convention" from Season 15, the "Adventures" segment features an ATV race between Bill, Winston, and Dalton. Dalton is essentially driving a riding mower, while Bill and Winston have faster, more powerful vehicles. However, they drive recklessly and ultimately run out of fuel just short of the finish line, handing victory to Dalton.
In an episode of Gilligan's Island, the women of the island decide to have a beauty contest, with the men as judges. The Skipper supports Ginger, the Professor supports Mary-Ann, and Mr. Howell supports his wife, leaving Gilligan throwing the deciding vote. Gilligan declares that all three women are ineligible to win the contest, since they're not native to the island, and gives the prize to a monkey.
One episode of The Andy Griffith Show had Andy acting as judge for a beauty pageant. Everyone starts trying to do him favors so their daughters or themselves can win. When come time to decide a winner, Andy picks...an elderly old woman who was working on the pageant as she was the only one who wasn't badgering him about it.
In the Glee episode Prom Queen, it's prom. The election of Prom King and Queen is of course Serious Business, and especially the Prom Queen candidates treat it like a matter of life and death. None of them win. Instead, Kurt is elected Prom Queen in a homophobic prank that apparently the whole school except his friends in glee club took part in.
In the Ever Decreasing Circles episode "Snooker", the ever competitive Martin is delighted to discover that his usually highly capable neighbour Paul is hopeless at snooker, and he eliminates him easily in the first round of the local pub snooker tournament. However, usual light comic relief character Howard's anger at being seen as a loser boils over after an incident at work, and he wipes the table with Martin in the final.
In Disney's A.N.T. Farm, this trope is inverted in a way. Chyna and Olive were competing to try and lose the election. They were both hoping for the other one to win, because winning meant having to be shot out of a cannon. In a twist ending, Chyna's brother Cameron wins the election and is happy about it because he never wins anything.
The 1985 Grammy award for Album Of The Year was expected to be won by either Prince's Purple Rain or Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA. The two ended up splitting the rock-oriented voting bloc, allowing Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down to take the award. (For the record, the other two nominees for that year were Tina Turner's Private Dancer and Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual.)
Some argued that the true winner of 1995's Battle Of Britpop between blur and Oasis was actually Pulp.
The 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year turned into one. Lady Gaga won for Pop Album, Lady Antebellum's "Need you Now" won both Song and Record of the Year, and Eminem won Best Rap Album. Think one of those three would win? NOPE! It went to Arcade Fire, a semi-obscure indie ensemble from Canada who never had any hits prior.
Triple J Hottest 100 2013. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was one of the most talked-about songs worldwide that year, hailed by everyone including the radio D Js. Lorde had her own hat in the ring with "Royals", an anti-pop song disguised as a party song. Both those songs were international hits, breaking the Top 10 of nearly every country, and it looked like Triple J would follow that consensus. Final result: Vance Joy, an unlabeled artist who didn't even have a full album yet, with "Riptide".
In the 1998 the Minnesota Gubernatorial election was a tough race against controversial St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphreynote son of Lyndon Johnson's Veep Hubert H. Humphrey. However many people were shocked when Brooklyn Park Mayor and former wrestler Jesse Ventura won the Election and became Governor.
Following the Liberal Party's defeat in the 2007 Australian election and John Howard's loss of his seat, Peter Costello was the favourite to take over the party leadership, with Malcolm Turnbull as a dark horse candidate. Costello announced he would not stand for leader, leaving Turnbull as the frontrunner. However, when the party voted on its new leader, Turnbull was defeated by Brendan Nelson.
A similar thing happened in Canada in 2006, where Stéphane Dion won the Liberal Party leadership instead of frontrunners Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. In '08, the party suffered its worst election in years, which was mostly blamed on Dion (not entirely unfair) and he was replaced by Ignatieff a few months later.
Then, in 2011, Ignatieff delivered the Liberals an even worse defeat—the first one ever in which they dropped to third place. Rae became interim leader, and after Justin Trudeau (son of the late PM Pierre) dropped out of the race is the front-runner to become permanent leader. But the actual leadership election isn't until mid-2013, so you never know...
Those two Democrats (Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge) whose rivalry cost their party the election and gave Abraham Lincoln the vote.
In 1912, the dominant Republican Party was split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (who ran as a third party candidate), paving the way for Woodrow Wilson's victory. It was one of the few times in American history that a "third party" finished second.
An almost perfect example of this happened in the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus: the analysts were certain that the race for the state was between Dick Gephardt (who won the caucuses in 1988) and Howard Dean (who had been leading in the polls in Iowa for months), and the pair got engaged in a vicious negative campaign for much of December. Come January and the caucuses, and two dark horses swept in: John Kerry won, and John Edwards came in second. Dean and Gephardt were turned into also-rans, and quickly eliminated from the field thereafter.
And in 1880, the Republican convention deadlocked between James Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant, leading to Blaine's nominator James Garfield being nominated, then elected President.
The more apt Abraham Lincoln example would be his strategy to get the Republican nomination in 1860 - the two favorites (William H. Seward and Salmon Chase) each had made too many enemies, as did the third-favorite candidate, Edward Bates. Among those who were determined to stop Seward, Lincoln was the alternative candidate that they could agree on.
And before, this, Lincoln was on the opposite side in the 1854 Illinois Senate race. Republicans and Democrats against the Kansas-Nebraska act had a slight majority, but a few such democrats voted for Norman Judd instead of Lincoln on the grounds that they wouldn't be re-elected if they supported a Republican candidate. To prevent the pro-Nebraska act democrat candidate from winning, Lincoln withdrew in favor of Judd, who was at least an anti-Nebraska democrat.
James K. Polk won Democratic nomination only after entering the ballot six votes in after a deadlock between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass. Under the previous voting system van Buren would have quite easily won nomination early on, but a newly-introduced requirement for a two-thirds majority killed both his and Cass's chances, as van Buren had too many detractors from his first (and ultimately only) term as President, while Cass had enough enemies in the party that they voted for van Buren out of spite to keep Cass below the victory threshold. Eventually Polk was introduced as a new candidate, van Buren withdrew and threw his support behind him, and Polk defeated Cass on the next ballot.
A very similar thing happened with Franklin Pierce eight years later. This time there was no two-thirds requirement... the problem was that there were four candidates (Cass, James Buchanan, Stephen A. Douglas and William L. Marcy) with radically different ideologies, and the vote kept swinging between the four with none of them willing to back out. Eventually Pierce was introduced to the process, and gradually earned enough support to win the nomination. For perspective, the 1844 race that saw Polk get nominated took ten ballots; this race took forty-nine ballots.
Warren Harding was a rare deliberate example of this trope. Going into the 1920 Republican convention, he knew full well that he didn't have enough support to win the party's nomination outright, but neither did any of the other candidates. Rather than going in at the start and potentially falling by the wayside early on, he instead decided to sit on the sidelines at first, then when it became clear none of the other candidates could win, presented himself as a compromise candidate and secured the nomination. However, this came back to bite him on the butt; the other delegates, angry at this tactic, successfully conspired to put up Calvin Coolidge instead of Harding's preferred running mate, which proved all the more important when Harding died halfway through his term, and Coolidge succeeded him.
The third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 is considered a major factor in costing George H.W. Bush the election, as they split the conservative votes. However, this analysis overlooks the fact that Perot dropped out of the race for most of the summer, and during that period Bush continued to lag behind Bill Clinton in the polls. In fact, even without Perot in the race, it was unlikely that Bush would've won a second term.
This was also a very real threat during the 2008 elections, with Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters threatening to defect to McCain should Barack Obama take the nomination (and in fact, some did, apparently having no idea that there exists other parties besides Republican and Democrat in America).
McCain himself was a Dark Horse Victory on the Republican side, with the front-runners originally being Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
Which was itself a case of this trope, as McCain and Giuliani had been the initial frontrunners... only for McCain to stumble badly and Romney (and a host of others) to come swooping in.
In 2009, the Democratic Primary for governor of Virginia had Terry McAuliffe, former DNC chairman and Clinton supporter, and Brian Moran, a Virginia politician. This was a classic matchup between the more liberal Northern Virginians and the more conservative Southern Virginians... and then the party was crashed when Creigh Deeds, a candidate that drove himself to rallies and fundraisers, won the nomination in a walk.
In the latter months of 2009, it was very common to see stickers reading "Coakley" or "Capuano," the Democratic frontrunners by far, in Massachusetts leading up to the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. Both of them poured all their resources into fighting each other, both fully expecting that, like most Massachusetts elections, the general election would be an 80/20 formality. Coakley, especially, showed downright offense at the notion that she should lower herself to campaign against a Republican, and maintained a campaign of passive derision until the last week. Of course, said Republican, Scott Brown, won the seat 52-47.
The 2010 British election debates were like this. Basically, there's Labour (then led by Gordon Brown) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron) both hovering between 30% and 60% of the seats at any one time in the past hundred years, and the Liberal Democrats (led by Nick Clegg) holding all but around 30 of the remaining seats.note Before the election, it was 350 Labour, 197 Conservative, 62 Liberal Democrats, 27 Regional parties, 6 Indepedents, 3 Vacancies, and the non-voting, unaffiliated, Speaker So, obviously, they had to invite Clegg on as it was likely he could hold the balance of power in the next parliament. What wasn't expected was him to figuratively curb-stomp the other two in the first debate, and hold his ground against Cameron in the second debate, mostly because he's a damn good orator (being an atheist Europhile with an aversion to nukes should've destroyed him, especially his Europhilia, but he made it work by noting the eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament failed to support anti-paedophile legislation and efforts). And between the first and second debate, the Lib Dems jumped from clear third to joint first in the polls as well.
Hell, even after the election it essentially was a victory for the Lib Dems, despite not getting more seats than the 2005 election the Conservatives failed to get a majority, resulting in a hung parliament meaning that both Labour and the Tories tried to court the Lib Dems into forming a coalition government to gain an overall majority, since they essentially had the balance of power on their side. The Tories successfully agreed a deal with them and Nick Clegg was installed as the Deputy Prime Minister, although as entering into a coalition, especially as a junior partner, involves plenty of compromising and changing policy to accomodate the other party, LD support has dropped significantly and resulted in demonization as the other parties seek to squeeze disaffected LD voters to their side, having to rely on years to rebuild and banking on a good economy to recover position (reversing on tuition fees cost them huge support, but reversing on civil liberties to accomodate Labour would also have cost them huge support it is worth remembering).
In terms of defeats in certain seats, Lembit Opik (Lib Dem) and Peter Robinson (leader of the DUP, a Northern Irish unionist party) both losing their seats with massive swings count too.
Had Robinson (not just leader, but First Minister of Northern Ireland) had a smaller majority it would probably have been expected, since he'd recently been involved in a fairly major scandal and Belfast East was traditionally the Alliance Party's strongest constituency (the previous closest time they'd come to winning a seat at Westminster was there in '79, where Robinson won by less than a thousand votes, though he'd built up a large lead since then)
This is almost TRADITIONAL in Conservative Party leadership elections in the UK:
1965: Reginald Maudling is widely expected to win, with Edward Heath as a dark horse and Enoch Powell as a complete outsider. However Maudling's poor record as Chancellor leaves Heath with a majority (though he fails to win due to the rather complicated rules) and both Maudling and Powell withdraw.
1975: Heath is now flagging badly after losing both 1974 elections. However Maudling has retired,and Powell has rather hurt his chances by defecting to the UUP and telling people to vote Labour, leaving Keith Joseph as consensus candidate for the right and frontrunner, only to have to withdraw after a speech in favour of eugenics, while the main heavyweight on the left, Willie Whitelaw, has pledged loyalty to Heath. A woman on the right, Margaret Thatcher decides if no one else will run against Heath, she will. Nobody expects her to win, but they DO expect her to probably get enough votes to stop Heath winning, forcing him to withdraw in favour of Whitelaw (candidates were at this point allowed to enter and withdraw whenever they please, though if they withdrew they couldn't re-enter, until somebody won a majority with at least a 15% lead). She ends up winning a plurality, which together with several other candidates from the left standing as well as Whitelaw, is enough to let her win on the second ballot.
1990: Thatcher's now flagging over the poll tax (or, as she prefers, Community Charge) and a damaging resignation speech from Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, though she easily beat off a challenge from Anthony Meyer the year before, and is challenged by Michael Heseltine. Almost everyone expects the Prime Minister to win again and live to fight another day, but she doesn't quite get a 15% lead. She initially announces she will fight on, only to be persuade by the Cabinet, that, while they still support her, they don't think she can win, and she stands aside for John Major to take the lead over Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, who then both withdraw.
1995: Rather odd this one. Major's now flagging, and when he resigns to force out his main challenger, Michael Portillo, everyone expects Portillo to win. But as it happens, Portillo realises this is a point where it's best to be in a strong position to be leader rather than actually leader, and doesn't stand, while Heseltine agrees to become Major's deputy instead, and Major comfortably beats John "vote for Redwood not the deadwood" Redwood.
1997: Major stands down after a landslide defeat in the General Election. Michael Portillo would still have been the frontrunner to succeed him – except that at the election he surprisingly lost his seat, leaving Michael Howard the frontrunner, with the support of young up-and-comer William Hague in exchange for becoming his deputy. Only for Hague to go back on his word, and damaging criticism of Howard from Ann Widdecombe, which combine to leave him dead last on the first ballot and withdraw, leaving Hague to beat Ken Clarke.
2001: Hague resigns after a very bad electoral performance, making him the first Tory leader not to become PM since Austen Chamberlain in the First World War, leaving a leadership election under new rules. Portillo, newly returned to Parliament, is immediately once again the frontrunner, closely followed by Ken Clarke – only to be knocked out in the third ballot, leaving Clarke favourite to beat Iain Duncan Smith in the runoff in the party membership... only for the unheralded Duncan Smith to thrash him 61-39. This was largely attributed to Margaret Thatcher endorsing Duncan Smith prior to the leadership election, and fourth and fifth-placed candidates David Davis and Michael Ancram throwing their support behind him in order to prevent Clarke or Portillo from winning.
2005: Having finally succeeded to the leadership unopposed in 2003 due to Duncan Smith's unpopularity among MPs, and despite a much-improved performance in that year's general election (knocking Labour's majority down to around 40 seats), Michael Howard resigns largely because he would likely be 68 or 69 years old by the time the next election rolled around. With the Constitutional Treaty firmly off the agenda, perennially popular veteran Ken Clarke is once again the frontrunner – only to go out in the first round, leaving David Davies the favourite... only to be beaten in the members' ballot by previously unheralded young up-and-comer David Cameron.
It's happened a couple of times in Labour Party leadership elections too:
1980: After James Callaghan was replaced in No. 10 by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in 1979, he stayed on for a while as Labour leader, hoping that it would ensure a smooth transition to his preferred successor - the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Defence Secretary Denis Healey. He really couldn't have been more wrong. Tony Benn, former member of the cabinet and the standard bearer of the party's left-wing, oversaw the passage of some key internal reforms at the 1980 party conference. However, Benn, who many had thought would be the left's candidate for the leadership, declined to stand. Instead it was Michael Foot, another former cabinet minister, who defeated (albeit narrowly) Healey and became the new leader of the Labour Party. Labour subsequently suffered from more infighting—and drifted further to the left—and the "Gang of Four" MPs on the Labour right formed the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberal Party.
2010: Labour lost power after failing to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. David Miliband was widely predicted to replace Gordon Brown, especially considering that many of the other major contenders (such as Alan Johnson and Harriet Harman) chose not to run. As it turned out, he was just pipped to the leadership by his younger brother Ed.
Crosby in 1981. Held in a Conservative safe seat in Merseyside, it resulted with Shirley Williams (from the SDP-Liberal Alliance) winning the seat with nearly half the vote. In 1979, the predecessor Liberal Party had finished in third place in Crosby with 15% of the vote.
Bermondsey in 1983. In 1979 the Liberals came in third place with less than 10% of the vote in a constituency where Labour won 60%; in a by-election in 1983 Liberal Candidate Simon Hughes took the seat with 57% of the vote. Tragically though, one of the reasons for Labour's loss was that their candidate Peter Tatchell (besides his radical left views) was openly gay, and later became famous as a gay activist. The Liberal campaign had a hint of homophobic scare stories behind it, but in 2006 Hughes revealed that he is himself bisexual.
Older Than Feudalism example: In 63BC, the Romans held an election for the highly prestigious post of Pontifex Maximus (essentially, the chief priest). Fashionable opinion during the campaign was that it boiled down to a contest between two very old, very influential ex-consuls, Quintus Lutatius Catulus and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus, both typical candidates for the job. However, the two were too keen on the position (which was for life) to pull out and let the other take it, and wound up splitting the conservative, patrician vote... allowing a very young and then-unknown senator to score a sensational example of this trope. Still, surely the largely ceremonial position couldn't lead to any major revolution in Roman life? Well, maybe if the young senator in question weren't a certain Gaius Julius Caesar...
Professional Wrestling does this with Triple Threat matches when one of the three wrestlers in the match has not been involved in a running feud between the other two, or is otherwise pushed into the match with an intentional lack of build-up. A recent example: Randy Orton, a textbook heel and then-WWE Champion, went into Wrestlemania 24 defending his belt against John Cena and Triple H in a Triple Threat match. Triple Threats as championship matches are notorious for hamming up the defender losing a belt unfairly or without being 'properly' beaten, because one of the non-champions can win the belt by pinning the other non-champion. WWE even did a phone-poll for fan speculation on who would win the match, with Orton receiving an underwhelming five percent of the vote. Guess who won the match?
Dark Horse Victories are common enough in wrestling that WWE has begun successfully swerving the audience by letting the odds-on favorites win handily. The most visible example is WWE's recent years-long campaign to re-establish the #30 spot in the Royal Rumble as the odds-on favorite (since drawing #30 out of 30 had previously been, statistically, the worst chance to win the match) by having a streak of victories from the final entrants; meanwhile, Wade Barrett was built as such a foregone conclusion to win the first season of WWE's NXT show that his victory was a surprise.
Much to the joy of every internet Smart Mark alive, CM Punk held the WWE Championship, Daniel Bryan held the World Heavyweight Championship and Zack Ryder held the United States Championship simultaneously (at one point). All three (Punk and Bryan being indy circuit vets and Ryder being an internet darling (moreso than the other two)) were widely seen as "not championship material" by management. Following their victories after the 2011 TLC pay-per-view, all three joined together to defeat Dolph Ziggler, Alberto del Rio and The Miz in a tag-team match, and then celebrated with the crowd as the collective "People's Champions".
A subsequent promotional video, using the song "Dark Horses" by Switchfoot, was made in recognition of this time of events.
Australian Steven Bradbury won a speed skating gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games after all the other competitors crashed. The Australian broadcaster, since it was Australia's first ever Winter Olympics gold medal (and first gold of any country in the Southern Hemisphere), still went ahead and did those slow motion, glory replays. In fact, "doing a Bradbury" has become Australian slang for this trope.
He may be Born Lucky, during his second heat, one racer was disqualified for interference, and in the semifinal, three of his opponents also crashed.
Eric Moussambani Malonga, from Equatorial Guinea, appeared at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as part of a wildcard draw that allowed developing countries in to the games without meeting the minimum requirements. In his heat for the 100 meter free-style (and the first time Malonga had ever swam in a full length pool), Malonga swam the course in 1'57'', the worst time for the event in Olympic history. However, since his two competitors false-started, Malonga was determined to have won his heat, and became a minor celebrity afterward.
The 1992 Olympics provided the former Trope Namer in Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia, who won the decathlon...after American audiences had been treated to an ad campaign hyping Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson in the buildup to the games (Dan failed to qualify for those games but later won the gold in '96 and Dave took the bronze).
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City featured a number of firsts, the first Olympics in Latin America, a number of broken records for pole vault, long jump, triple jump, etc. But one thing that Mexicans are likely to remember is Felipe "el tibio" Muñoz Kapamas, the first, and so far, only Mexican athlete to ever win a gold medal in an Olympic swimming event. El Tibio, "The Timid One", got his nickname for his then-odd habit of refusing to swim in a nonheated pool and became famous for edging out both the Soviet and U.S. favorite and winning the 200m breaststroke.
The 2007 Formula One World Championship had the two McLaren drivers, double World Champion Fernando Alonso and hotshot rookie Lewis Hamilton locked in a bitter rivalry for the title crown. The Championship went all the way to the final race, with Hamilton leading and Alonso second favourite. However, Hamilton made a mistake and Alonso was unable to catch up with the Ferraris. At the end of the day, it was their Ferrari rival Kimi Räikkönen who won the race and the title. Alonso and Hamilton were tied for second.
1986 had much of the same. Williams teammates double World Champion Nelson Piquet and English hero Nigel Mansell spew at each other all season, while Alain Prost comes from behind to take it, winning the season finale.
2010 had a similar outcome. A change in the points system and no dominant driver ensured a wide open contest right to the end between no fewer than five drivers, including Alonso, Hamilton and Jenson Button who between them had won four of the past five titles. Coming to the final race, Fernando Alonso led from Australian Mark Webber, with Webber's teammate, German Sebastian Vettel third. Alonso had to come first or second to clinch the crown, whereas Webber needed to win with Alonso no higher than third, and a very much third-favourite Vettel needed to win and have Alonso come fifth or lower. In the event, Vettel won the race – and became champion when Alonso and Webber finished 7th and 8th. To make it even more this trope, despite the leadership of the drivers' championship changing many times over the course of the season, Vettel had not been leading it once all year until winning in the final race.
This trope got preemptively lampshaded by Vettel: when asked by a reporter if he thought he stood a chance of winning the title, Vettel noted that he was the first one to ask that, everyone else had just asked if he would help his teammate win the title away from Alonso.
Seems to happen often in racing themes; one inspiration could be the 1979 Daytona 500. Donnie Allison was leading Cale Yarborough in the last lap, Yarborough tried to pass, and they both wrecked, leaving down-by-half-a-lap Richard Petty to win. Yarborough and Allison ended up discussing the incident in the infield using eloquent punches to the face.
An example from the world of football: in the 1993 Polish championship, frontrunners Legia Warsaw and LKS Lodz were accused of match-fixing so the title was awarded to third-placed Lech Poznan. Neither Legia nor LKS have forgiven Lech for this, but they never liked them much to begin with.
The Euro '92 international football European Championships. Due to the eruption of Civil War in Yugoslavia causing the country, a notable footballing power, to be removed from the tournament after they had qualified but before it could start, a replacement nation had to be drafted in at the last minute to make up the numbers. Denmark, runners-up to the Yugoslavs in qualifying, took their slot. In an evenly-matched group stage they managed a goalless draw against England before losing to local rivals Sweden. In the crucial last group game the unfancied Danes went up against big guns France for what turned out to be a straight fight for second place (behind the Swedes) and a spot in the semi-finals, and sneaked through 2-1 after a late winner. Denmark then encountered defending champions the Netherlands in the semis, and shockingly overturned them in a 5-4 penalty shootout victory. This pitted them against Germany in the final; the Germans remain one of the sport's perennial powerhouses and were the incumbent world champions. Guess who won. There was even a dark horse scorer, as in amongst an assembly of world-class striking talent it was Danish defensive midfielder John Jensen who netted their first goal in a 2-0 triumph – a man who otherwise managed just 3 international goals in nearly 80 matches across eight years, and who subsequent to this final would be signed by English giants Arsenal, where in 130-odd games he would famously score only once.
Twelve years later, Greece won the 2004 tournament over hosts Portugal, being carried by a Boring, but Practical game focused on defense (they scored only seven goals in six games, and their three wins in the knockout round were by 1-0).
In the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup the 4 pre-seeded teams were USA (two-times winner and perennial favorite), Germany (host team which had won the previous two cups - in 2007, without conceding a single goal), Brazil (runner-up in the last cup and two Olympics, and team of the best player in the world, Marta) and Japan. Guess which one of the four won?
Denmark in the European handball championships 2012. Coming to the tournament, expected to be one of the fours team in the semi finals, they lose two matches in the preliminary round, going to the main round with 0 points, effectively making themselves underdogs. Denmark won the three matches on the main round, and with some other results going the right way (Macedonia beating Poland, Sweden having a draw against Poland, Poland beating Germany), the Danes ended up with 6 points, one ahead of Germany, Poland and Macedonia (who started the main round with 4, 2 and 1 point respectively - 2 points for a win). In the semi-final, the team that had played the best handball during the tournament were waiting, but Denmark had a one goal victory against Spain to go through to the final. In the final, home team Serbia were beaten.
In the following year, the Brazilian female team won the World Championship over the host Serbians. The team had been a rising force, but couldn't actually translate to podiums (in the 2004 Olympics, nearly upset South Korea in the quarterfinals as a fourth seed but lost by two goals; in the 2011 World Championship as hosts, lost the quarterfinals to Spain by one goal; and in the 2012 Olympics, won their group but faced defending champions Norway who deliberately held their game back in Round 1 and eventually won by two goals).
A variation occured at Wimbledon 2012. The past 4 Slam finals had been between world #1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic and #2 Rafael Nadal and there was no indication that this time would be any different. As world #3, 6 time champion Roger Federer was on the radar, but he hadn't won a major title for 2 1/2 years, hadn't got past the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 3 and at 30 he was half a decade older than them. Success looked even less likely when he almost lost in the 3rd round and developed a back problem in the 4th. His dark horse victory came in the semi-final when he beat Djokovic in a Slam for the first time in over a year. In the final he was actually the favourite, as Nadal had fallen early, meaning his opponent was 4th seed Andy Murray.
And it was a straight example in the Olympic Games that followed: same court, same players... only this time Murray won (the first time a British man had won a singles tournament in Wimbledon since 1936).
Some more dark horse victories in men's tennis are Djokovic's 2008 Australian Open win (this came at a time when Federer and Nadal's rivalry was the focus of 90% of the tennis world, and Djokovic and his opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga upset both of them in the semifinals), Juan Martin del Potro's 2009 US Open win (the only time between 2006-13 that one of the 'Big Four' failed to win a Slam), and Stanislas Wawrinka's 2014 Australian Open win (made all the more impressive by him defeating both Djokovic and Nadal to do it).
On the women's side, the 2010 French Open was considered to be fairly wide open with predictions of the champion ranging from Serena Williams to Justine Henin to Jelena Jankovic. Even with this open field, however, almost no one predicted that Samantha Stosur would upset all three main contenders in her run to the final and literally no one on earth foresaw her final opponent, the little-known 17th seed Francesca Schiavone, turning in the performance of her life to become only the second non-top 10 female player in tennis history (the first one was in 1933) to win the French Open and the first-ever Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title.
99.99% of all tennis followers were waiting for Serena Williams's foregone victory at the 2013 Wimbledon championships. 0.01% thought that there might be the faintest smidgen of a chance that Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova could win instead. 0.0000% saw Marion Bartoli coming.
The 2012 PGA Tour FedEx Cup championship. Entering the "playoffs" run, Tiger Woods was leading the race for the cup, but Rory McIlroy won the first two events to vault into the lead, setting up a "Tiger vs. Rory" narrative going into the final event, the Tour Championship. However, neither golfer played well in that event, allowing relative unknown Brandt Snedeker to take the FedEx Cup by winning the Tour Championship.
The Czech national ice-hockey team is usually very solid and never a true underdog. They were, however, underdogs in Winter Olympics Games in Nagano in 1998. The NHL allowed for the first time to have a break for the Olympics. The national ice-hockey teams could — for the first time ever — send their very best players and build all star teams. Both Canada and the United States were heavily favoured as they had previously faced off in the final of the 1996 World Cup of Ice-Hockey. However, the Czechs defeated the USA in the quarterfinal match. Canada lost to them in the semifinal match in the nerve-biting shoot-outs. The Czechs won the gold medal, beating Russia in the final.
Foinavon pulled the Horse Racing equivalent of a Steve Bradbury when he cantered into the 1967 Grand National with odds of only 100/1 and ended up winning the race when all the other horses crashed at the 23rd fence and he was far enough behind them to avoid the pile-up.
In harness racing, one of the most anticipated races of all time was the 1988 March of Dimes Invitational Trot, featuring horses considered the best trotters in the world at the time—American horse Mack Lobell and French horse Ourasi. Mack went to the lead, and held it until Ourasi pulled slightly ahead at the top of the stretch. The two then battled down the stretch, and were eye-to-eye on the lead with 20 yards left. The winner... Sugarcane Hanover.
In 1986, Australian Rules Football's highest individual honor, the Brownlow Medal, was won by Robert DiPierdomenico. In his acceptance speech, he said, "I gave myself no chance and only came along for the food".
Amusingly, the Brazilian term for this is also on the equines, "Zebra" - due to a an animal-themed lotto where the striped horse is not one of the 25 options, so if the result was zebra...
In Gore Vidal's play (and subsequent film) The Best Man, a bitterly contested fight for a party's Presidential nomination ends when one of the candidates withdraws and throws his support behind a previously-uncompetitive third man.
One of the shows in the late, great Adventurer's Club, the Balderdash Cup competition, involved a 'rivalry' between one character (Otis T. Wren) and another member (Hathaway Brown), who Wren sends on a Snipe Hunt before the competition. Both of them, however, almost always lose to a third contestant, on his "first night".
Each of the other two have won at least once, though, as the contest is judged by the audience. While it's generally understood that the audience is supposed to vote for Bleehall, a group of guests colluded and threw the contest for Brown. And, on the very last night the club was open, Otis T. Wren finally won.
The Nintendo Wii. Before the 7th Console Generation truly began, it was widely believed that the PS3 and Xbox 360 would sell far better than the Wii, and that the Wii would be dead last in sales. Needless to say that didn't happen. To be fair though, after the poor sales of the Gamecube, expectations were understandably low. But now for once Nintendo is strongly in 1st place while Sony is in last, but catching up to the X360. Of course whether or not this should have happened is often a source of debate. The only downside to this surprise victory is that its one of the biggest reasons why other companies are slow to adapt to the Wii's success. (On the other hand, the success of the Nintendo DS is less surprising, since all the way back to 1989 Nintendo has been a lot more consistently successful in handhelds, but that's a different story.)
It is worth noting that the Wii's success is largely attributed to the fact its release price was about half the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles, and because it has a more "casual" approach. This information was not known when people were predicting low sales.
Even after the prices were announced many analysts still constantly predicted the "Wii Bubble" to burst any day, usually anytime the other consoles got a price cut. Micheal Pachter still thinks Nintendo is crazy for not adopting his "Wii HD" suggestion.
Of course, there's more to success than number of systems sold. The attach rate (number of games purchased per system) is notoriously low on the Wii. On the other hand, Nintendo typically makes a profit on hardware, whereas the 360 and PS3 were sold at a loss for many years. Between these factors and regional variations in popularity, a clear winner in the seventh generation Console Wars is hard to call.
In Fallout: New Vegas, three factions are fighting over Hoover Dam and the city of New Vegas: Caesar's Legion, an army of raping slavers, Mr.House, a brilliant former businessman with his own robot army, and the New California Republic, a strong, rich, democratic republic from the west. The main plot of the game is deciding who wins by helping them take bases, screwing up their enemies intelligence, annihilating minor factions who are allied against them, etc. However, instead of helping any of the above, you can assassinate Mr.House and take control of his robot army. You can then use that robot army to defeat both the New California Republic and the Legion at Hoover Dam (after optionally dealing with the various raider groups and Legion bases around the Mojave) and take control of Vegas for yourself. It's not statistically the best ending (it ends with at least two "bad" ending slides and several neutral ones, as opposed to the NCR ending where all "good" endings are possible for everyone).
Depending on the player's actions, the downloadable content Dead Money can feature a significantly darker version of this trope. Throughout the questline, you've been trying to help the insane former Elder of the Brotherhood of Steel, Elijah, break into a massive pre-war casino which for some reason had numerous technological wonders like matter replicators and invincible laser shooting holograms in it, and an army of Ghost people guarding it. It's also surrounded by a huge red toxic cloud only called "the Cloud". When you finally get into the section of the Casino he was looking for (the one that lets him control the holograms and the flow of the cloud), he tries to pull You Have Out Lived Your Usefulness on you, and tries to kill you. However, you can convince him through a very specific set of dialogue that We Can Rule Together, resulting in a Non-Standard Game Over. Then, a little cutscene will play explaining how Elijah and the Courier unleashed the Cloud and the holograms upon the Mojave, which killed everything in their path. No living thing set foot in the Mojave for years after due to rumors of ghosts immune to gunfire and a red cloud that brought death in its wake. All that remained was Elijah and the Courier, waiting in the Sierra Madre for the world to begin again.
A common phenomenon in many strategy games (particularly of the 4X type) which involve multiple competing sides and a Tech Tree. What happens is that while the more active players expand and compete with each other militarily, a less aggressive faction is able to sit back in their corner of the map and climb the Tech Tree undisturbed. This eventually gives them an unstoppable advantage over the apparently superior competitors when they do join in the fray (see Conflict Killer). Occurs less often in multiplayer games, as humans know to team up and gank the techer early on.
In Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, after the final battle, the Lord has united the continent, both holding control of The Kingdom of Zenobia and The Empire of Zeteginea. In most of the endings, either Tristan, the heir to the throne of Zenobia, takes the throne, or he abdicates it in favor of the Lord, but in one ending, Rauny, the first female Paladin and the heir to the Zeteginean Empire, takes the throne in her own name, marrying the Lord to support her claim. This is the only ending where Rauny takes the throne, and she's not otherwise a candidate.
In 2011, EA Sports and ESPN hosted a tournament to see which NFL player would grace the Madden 2012 cover. The best player from each team was chosen for the bracket, and the fans voted each round. Such big names as Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Hines Ward, and Drew Brees fell by the wayside. In the finals, the controversial Michael Vick made the finals, but he lost to...Peyton Hillis of the Cleveland Browns. Making him only the second Madden cover boy from a team that didn't make the playoffs the previous year. (The first? Vince Young, who had just won Rookie of the Year the previous year.) To be fair, many fans admitted to voting for the player they didn't like, so that their guy didn't fall under the Madden Curse.
The winner of GameFAQs' Character Battle 6 in 2007 was not Link, who had won almost every contest he took part in, nor was it Cloud, who was the only to ever topple Link. It wasn't even someone like Mario, Sonic, Snake, or Master Chief. No, the winner of the contest on that year, who was able to topple every character to be thrown at it was... an L-Block. From Tetris. By tens of thousands of votes. By the time it reached the third round, the inherent hilarity of a Joke Entry becoming the most popular character ever was simply too strong to resist for the voters.
This caused the site to hold a quick small character battle directly after L-Block won by pitting it against other similar video game objects and it lost to the ? Block.
In a less popular note, 6 years after L-Block, Draven from League of Legends won the Character Battle IX, including defeats over Link, Snake and Samus due to Reddit rallies. GameFAQs users immediately raised hell, as it was it was basically a Hostile Show Takeover by a Zerg Rush (voting had decayed from regular 100,000 votes to 50-60k in good days... numbers Draven regularly got by himself starting in round 2) who wanted to push to victory their memetic character - while L-Block has a general appeal, Draven was Fan Myopia at its finest. Reddit trolls, fishy happenings, and indications that the Lo L forums offered prizes if Draven won the contest didn't help the least.
At one point during Might and Magic VII, your actions as Lords of Harmondale lead to another war over Harmondale between Tularea and Erathia. There are two variations for how a victory is achieved (bloody war or negotiated compromise following skirmishes), but at first it might seem as if those are the only two contenders. Take the right actions, however, and a third victor is possible: You. If you get the Gryphonheart Trumpet and give it to the Arbiter, Harmondale becomes an independent buffer kingdom.
A strange example occurs in Final Fantasy VII. When Sephiroth goes mad and it turns out Cloud had been taking on Zack's persona. The fights went like this: Tifa vs. Sephiroth, Zack vs. Sephiroth, and a random mook (not even a Class-Three SOLDIER) vs. Sephiroth. The winner of the first two is Sephiroth. The winner of the third fight? The random mook, AKA CLOUD IN DISGUISE!
This is the backstory to AI War Fleet Command. Two human factions waged a massive war for centuries, but then the combat AI turned and beat them both.
Dark Horse Defeat in Shortpacked!: Galasso warns everyone that someone will be laid off at the end of the holiday season. Ethan desperately tries to make sure it is the new guy they all hate, Faz, who goes, or at least not himself. At the end of the arc, Galasso announces that the employee to be fired... is a girl who has not once appeared on camera, spoken a line of dialogue or been named or referred to until this point, with vicious lampshading. This leads into Robin getting mad at the cop-out and trying to increase the comic's drama.
This character, "Sydney Yus," does return later as part of the forces Faz has assembled to lead his coup against Galasso.
In Kevin & Kell, Frank Mangle challenged the Herd Thinners C.E.O. R.L. for control of Herd Thinners. By the rules, the last man standing would be the C.E.O. That turned out to be Kell Dewclaw, who had only intervened to keep R.L. and Frank from killing each other.
This was the protagonists' first true victory in Dubious Company. Izor sends the Imperial Guard to quash a rebelling town. The Guard puts down the rebellion in an overly nonsensicalmanner. The pirates later come in and take the Guard prisoner and sack the town. Given that the Imperial Guard has always curb-stomped the pirates before, this was a bit of a surprise.
Season 5: The final 3 is Gatemaster, Miranda, and Marius. Gatemaster hadn't done much intentional strategy, but he had somehow managed to control almost the entire season anyway and was extremely likable (if weird) too. Miranda was more overtly strategic and had managed to take the leadership position in her tribe without getting a single vote cast against her. Marius, on the other hand, had angered almost all of his tribemates and gone out of his way to piss off at least two of the jurors. However, Gatemaster and Miranda ended up splitting the votes enough for Marius to eke out a win with votes from the tribemates he had remained friendly to and explained his strategy to.
In Gunnerkrigg Court Andrew is named the Court's medium instead of Annie by the Headmaster's decision. Everyone was so certain who it would be that they start congratulating the assumed winner, who with false modesty expresses surprise, before they realize who was chosen.
In the (written, but not released) Homestar Runner cartoon "Soap Box Doiby", Homestar and Pom Pom compete viciously for first place. Marzipan, who isn't even revealed to be taking place in the race until the last second, ends up winning. (Homestar's usual rival, Strong Bad, winds up getting last place, however.)
Survival of the Fittest 's version 3 endgame (Spoilered for massive spoilers) ultimately subverts this. In this case, there are four competitors: J. R. Rizollo, Trish McCarrol, Lenny Priestly, and Louise "Lulu" Altaire. Lulu is obviously the odd one out here, only killing 2 people, both only out of revenge, not to mention she is massively outpowered by everyone else. Ultimately, she makes it to endgame, and puts up a brutal fight against one of the biggest killers in the game so far, J. R., going so far as to even cutting off several of his fingers. Unfortunately, he takes advantage of one of her flaring disadvantages, her glasses which she can't see without. This allows him to kill her, and he wins v3, subverting the expected trope (Trish and Lenny had both killed each other by this point).
Epic Rap Battles of History: Whenever a third party appears who is not mentioned in the title, they tend to get a significant amount of people in the comments claiming them the winner. Examples include HAL-9000 in Bill Gates VS Steve Jobs, Lincoln in Barack Obama VS Mitt Romney, and the Shamwow guy in Ben Franklin VS Billy Mays.
In Strip Search, the fourth round of eliminations pitted Nick Trujillo against Mackenzie Schubert. The winner was Lexxy Douglass, whose comic in Elimination #3 had been so absolutely good that the judges couldn't bear to destroy it.
Famously, the Death Battle between Dr. Wily and Dr. Robotnik ended when Metal Sonic went rogue, sending the whole thing Off the Rails and ending with him killing everybody.
All Grown Up!, "Rats Race": Tommy vs. Angelica (despite being cousins, they, too, are perennial rivals) in a go-kart race... but the winner is Harold.
Angela Anaconda, Angela, Nanette and several other kids entered a bicicle race. The only kid who made it to the finish line was Josephine, who didn't crash into any other racer. Angela's best friend tried to comfort her with the fact Nanette also hasn't won. Angela said that it'd usually be enough consolation but she needed the money prize.
Baby Looney Tunes: Bugs and Lola are racing Daffy in a toy car race, with Sylvester and Taz seeming only to make up the numbers (those two have to pool together their parts to put together an entry, even)... until Daffy's car bumps Bugs and Lola's car off the course, leaving the other car (Sylvester and Taz's) the only one to finish and win.
The CatDog episode "Climb Every CatDog" features Cat participating in a mountain climbing contest against Cat's arch-enemy Mindy, who has beat him in every competition since elementary school. The winner gets the mountain named after them. In the end, Mindy is hit by a passing plane and CatDog finally reaches the summit of Mt. Dunlap. And he was only trying to return their earmuffs!
Played Straight and Averted on Daria, when the Fashion Club are competing for a modeling contract along with a pudgy, redheaded background character. Oddly enough, she's not the Dark Horse—the contract winds up going to Kevin, one of the boys whom the modeling agency had asked to pose with the competing girls.
In "Arts 'n' Crass," the school has an art contest about student life. Most of the episode focuses on Daria and Jane's submission (a well-done but deliberately shocking take on eating disorders) and how they want to rescind it from the contest after Ms. Li alters it without their approval. At the very end we find out that Brittany's entry (which looks like it might have been done by a five-year-old) actually won, to Daria and Jane's amusement.
In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy Grim and Mandy face Billy and Irwin in a go kart race. They are both close up to the final lap, but are beat by a mystery racer in a red wagon, a previously unnamed character named Pudd'n.
Subverted in the Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends episode "Room with a View". Several regulars compete for ownership of a room, but a friend who came out of nowhere named Peanut Butter ends up winning it....but only at the closing of the second act. The third act has the other competitors managing to get him to give up the room, and in the end, one of the regulars wins.
In Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, the school has a day where students and their parents compete together in sports events. Naturally, the focus of the episode is Jimmy vs. Cindy, both of whom cheat. However, at the end it turns out that every family was cheating except for Carl and his equally unathletic parent, so they win by default.
Kim Possible: It happens in two episodes that made their U.S. premiere in January 2004.
"Hidden Talent": Bonnie and Kim (perennial rivals, of course) both losing to Ron at a talent show (although it does serve Kim right, since instead of showing off her kung fu skills, she, er, sings generic pop.) Barkin proclaims, "Proving that quantity is indeed better than quality", suggesting that Ron wasn't really any good at his acts.
In the ultimate version of this trope, Ron technically wasn't even supposed to be competing: he was a "last minute entry" who joined up to stall for time so that Kim wouldn't be disqualified as a no-show.
The very next episode was "Return to Wannaweep": Cheer camp at Lake Wannaweep. Bonnie vs. Kim again, this time, for the Spirit Stick. Your winner: A guy in a shark suit named Sharkie from a rival school. The "rivalry in perspective" portion of this trope is subverted, however, as Bonnie says: "Cheer camp stinks." A bitter Kim agrees. Ron? Although he points out either of them could have won if they'd put their differences behind, he's forced into agreeing on their point. (Shades of Buffy's "Homecoming". Both also use Dude, Where's My Reward?.)
Don't forget "Exchange" where Kim and Monique compete for the same Japanese Bad Boy-type exchange student, who's seen macking on the Alpha Bitch, Bonnie, as he leaves for Japan instead.
After an episode-long simmering rivalry in "Chain of Command," Lightning Lad challenges Cosmic Boy (who has been absent the entire series until just now) for leadership of the Legion Of Superheroes, it's a quick-cut to the tallied votes, and Bouncing Boy wins instead, as the other plot of the episode was him learning to be a better more assertive Mission Control.
In Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, Charlie and friends don't win the big river rafting race that forms the plot of the movie... but neither do the three bullies and their mean cat. The upset winner in this case is Snoopy's little yellow bird friend Woodstock. What's more, until right before the finish Snoopy was racing with Woodstock in a makeshift tire raft when the cat pops it with his claw. Woodstock crosses the finish line in a little handmade twig raft (made on the spot), which means technically, none of the FOUR groups (for much of the movie the boys and girls competed in separate groups) competing against each other for the entire race ultimately won.
Disney's Recess did this once: The A.V. Kid is leaving and uses a series of practical tests to find a successor. TJ and Vince are vying for the position. Initially fiercely competitive, they chose to set aside their differences during the final stage when their equipment malfunctions. They fix each other's projectors just before time runs out and are both successful. A.V. Kid commends them on their teamwork before handing the position to an obviously incompetent third candidate (who we've never seen before or ever see after, yet TJ and Vince apparently know him well), tangled up in the film, for his "independence" (Being a solitary job, the candidate had to prove that they could work without resorting to outside help).
This trope was averted in a later episode when Gretchen and Vince are running against each other for class president. Gretchen wins by one vote, which turns out to be cast by Vince after realizing that Gretchen actually had some good ideas and could make a difference, whereas he was treating it basically as a popularity contest.
Rocket Power: Local brat/recurring character Mackenzie Benders wins a sandcastle contest ahead of Underdog Sam and a Teen Genius by default because Mackenzie was the only one who built an actual sand castle.
The Simpsons did this with the aptly named Lisa's Rival, where Lisa replaces Allison Taylor's diorama of Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart with a bloody cow heart, but the guilt gets to her and she reveals Allison's real diorama (getting off the hook despite her feeble excuse), but Allison still doesn't win; Principal Skinner is unimpressed. Lisa does not think she deserves to win after trying to cheat, but she is still surprised when she does not win for a diorama of Oliver Twist. In the end Ralph Wiggum wins simply by putting Star Wars figures in a box. Lisa and Allison decide to be friends and even befriend Ralph despite his initial gloating ("I beat the smart kids! I beat the smart kids!")
Also not so 'befriend'. It was suggested that they want to prove him not-smart by showing him games Lisa couldn't beat (at least initially).
Sponge Bob Square Pants, "The Great Snail Race": Patrick's snail Rocky wins a snail race (a rock!) ahead of perennial rival Squidward's pedigreed snail in love with SpongeBob's pet snail, Gary (who crashed into the wall).
Teacher's Pet: Scott Leadready and Leonard Helperman both lose to some gross kid named Ian for class president. Actually, it's the usual ending for the requisite election episode on just about any show.
In Tiny Toon Adventures, Babs Bunny and Plucky Duck competed for who could end up in the greater number of photographs in the school yearbook. It turned out they both tied, but 'The Kid in the Orange Hat' was in the background of every picture either of them was in, winning easily. And that Kid turned out to be Buster Bunny in disguise trying to teach them a lesson; instead, they both proceed to rain violence down upon him.
An episode of Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat involving a writing contest between Sagwa and her main rival had this trope. After the entire episode was spent trying to see who would win, they both lost to an old guy...who had won the contest 49 years in a row prior to this one.
Bromwell High did this when the school had a contest for the students to do presentations on social tolerance. In spite of all her efforts, including a multi-cultural interview show and parachut stunts, Natella doesn't win. And Keisha, in spite of throwing a gypsy boxing match, doesn't win either. The prize is awarded to the giner-haired Kylie, who didn't compete at all.
Every Which Way But Lose, in the fourth season of American Dad!: both Francine and "Carlotta Monterey" (Hayley) are beaten by "Emmy Lou Sugarbean" (Roger) in the baking competition at Langley County Fair.
Futurama: Zoidberg rigs the Oscars to ensure this will happen twice in a two-minute span: first by listing Calculon among the nominees, and then by announcing the winner, "instead of any of those guys," is his uncle.
Played with in the Talent Show episode of The Weekenders. Lor isn't competing against anyone in particular (thanks to Tish inexplicably not even qualifying for the competition), other than her own lack-of-confidence (and inability to remember that the lyrics to "Home on the Range" are NOT "where the deer and the cantaloupe play"). She gives a good performance, but loses to Bluke's "Incredible Flying Hams" act, which consists of him throwing ham in the air and running away, terrified.
This trope frequently crops up whenever the main characters are in direct competition with each other to provide An Aesop about the strength of friendship. The regular Darkhorse(s) who benefit are typically Bluke and/or Frances.
The Avatar: The Last Airbender crack chibi-short ‘School Time Shipping’ ends this way. Basically the entire young male cast (minus Sokka) are trying to convince Katara to go to the school dance with them. Aang, Jet, Haru and Zuko all try their hardest- but Katara admits she’s already going with someone else. The Blue Spirit! Zuko says “I didn’t see that coming” which is fitting, since the Blue Spirit is his alter ego!
A Running Gag on WordGirl—anytime there's a competition among the kid characters, and especially if Tobey is trying to win it, the prize will go to Violet. Sometimes this makes a little sense, like when she wins because of artistic skills, but usually it comes out of nowhere.
Inspector Gadget: In "Race to the Finish", both Dr. Claw and Gadget are disqualified(the former for cheating and leaving the grounds, the latter for being on police duty), resulting in the #17 car taking first place.
Examples of the "Hey, at least the other guy didn't win" variation
Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, "Hiccy Burp", sees Bloo and another imaginary friend named Blake Superior have a showdown with hiccups and burps (and yes, it's gross as it sounds) in a pageant. After some armpit noise making friend wins, The Tag shows him hiccuping while expressing how glad he is that Blake lost.
This trope formed the basis of a Doonesbury storyline in the 1970s. A congressional race is going on between Ginny Slade, Lacey Davenport, and a corrupt incumbent. Ginny has the support of most of the cast, as well as a song written about her by rock star Jimmy Thudpucker. However, people are torn between her and Lacey, leaving the incumbent with the full support of his party and coming out ahead. In the end Ginny realizes that Lacey is really the more qualified candidate and withdraws from the race to support her rather than let the incumbent take the race. Lacey wins and serves in congress for many years in the strip.
Hey Arnold!, "Grand Prix": Arnold settles for second in a go-kart race, but is glad to beat Edmund and Wolfgang.
The film The Ringer makes "the other guy didn't win" a plot point.
Truth in Television: Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Boston Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS, but the mere fact that they were both there means the New York Yankees finally missed the playoffs! Victory for Red Sox Nation! No, seriously.
More Truth in Television: The results of the 1912 election described above were exactly what Teddy Roosevelt wanted; he ran with the expectation of losing solely for the purpose of preventing Taft, whom he had grown to despise for not following the policies he had laid out, from being re-elected.
This essay on variations of the Kingmaker Scenario calls this "The Vendetta" - whatever the reason, Alice has adopted an attitude of "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure Bob doesn't win". Alice no longer cares about winning the game - she just wants revenge on Bob.
The Dodgers and the Giants ARE this trope. Over the course of a bitter, hundred-plus year rivalry (which has seen them both move from New York to California), fans of both teams take nearly as much joy in playing spoiler for whichever one of the teams is in position to win the division or make the playoffs as they do winning for themselves. The Giants beat the Dodgers 2 out of 3 games to end the season and cost the Dodgers the NL West title in '91, only for the Dodgers to return the favor in '93. And both times, the eventual division winner were the Braves. And that's only one example out of many.
This actually occurred with a test. The question was, "Who was the longest-lived English Ruler?", allowing a choice of four British monarchs. The actual answer wasn't even on the test: Richard Cromwell, who died less than 4 months short of his 86th birthday, even though he ruled England for only nine months. (He also technically wasn't a monarch, which perhaps explains why he was left off the list — though it doesn't excuse it.)
The 1992 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. For the first time, The Simpsons had a worthy opponent in Ren and Stimpy. The award went to A Claymation Easter, a forgettable CBS special. In DVD commentaries made a decade later, staffers from both shows were still angry about the decision, and basically said "if we didn't win, the other show should have!"
Pope John XXIII ascended to the papacy in 1958 as a distinct long-shot — so much so that he had already purchased his train ticket home before entering the conclave. The two front-runners consistently deadlocked through the conclave, so it was eventually determined that a compromise candidate was needed to move the process forward. After garnering no better than 17% of the votes through nine ballots, John XXIII became Pope two ballots later with 76% of the votes.
Most people who were paying attention to the voting running up to the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction expected it to go to either Thomas Ligotti's "The Last Feast of Harlequin" or Elizabeth Massie's "Stephen." The winner was the 19th issue of The Sandman, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. The fact that a comic book, and not one of the "serious pieces of literature" walked away with the award was so upsetting to the World Fantasy Convention's board of directors that they altered the rules so that no Comic Book would ever be nominated for the short fiction prize again, much less actually have the gall to be good enough to win the thing.