Understanding the underdog factor, from Loyola to Obama

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I admit it. I can’t get enough of it. I read every story about the Ramblers of Loyola University Chicago.

You would have to be living on Pluto not to know that they will be playing in the Final Four this weekend.

{mosads}This unheralded, overlooked, small school on Chicago’s North Side has captured the hearts and minds of every basketball fan in America. Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who doubles as team chaplain and scout, is an international sensation and has her own best-selling bobblehead. Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer are the team’s two, sharp-shooting Midwestern stars who have played basketball together since the third grade and are best friends. 


The Loyola legend is the ultimate David vs. Goliath story: The little guy versus the big guys. The underdog takes on the mighty and presumptive winner and topples him. You know it might end soon, but what a glorious feeling while it is happening.

There is something in the soul of America that instinctively identifies with a team like Loyola and roots for it, even though we know, deep down, they are fighting the odds. 

In politics, I now realize that some candidates for the highest office in the land have been blessed with the “Loyola factor” and, for a brief shinning moment, they ride it for as far as it takes them. If they are lucky, it never fades and stays with them all the way to the Oval Office. 

In 1952, Adlai Stevenson II was the first-term governor of Illinois who wrote his own speeches that were eloquent and witty. He was drafted for the Democratic nomination for president and got clobbered by a national hero — Dwight Eisenhower — but he had legions of followers who delighted in wearing a campaign button picturing a shoe with a hole in its sole and proclaiming that they were “all the way with Adlai.” The party nominated him again for president four years later, and he got clobbered again.

In 1960, a dashing young U.S. senator charmed his way to the nomination and then to the presidency. John F. Kennedy looked good and sounded even better. No Catholic had ever been elected president; JFK became the first. 

Henry Cabot Lodge was considered a washed-up, defeated has-been. But, in 1964, he came out of nowhere and won the Republican primary in New Hampshire; to make it even more improbable, he did it as a write-in.

Democrat Eugene McCarthy, then a U.S. senator, had the guts to challenge a sitting president in 1968. His candidacy made Lyndon Johnson not run for re-election and started the end of our involvement in Vietnam.

In 1972, a mild-mannered U.S. senator from South Dakota named George McGovern, who started with 2 percent in the polls, became the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. He later lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, but voters in the two places that went for McGovern — the District of Columbia and Massachusetts — still smugly say “don’t blame me.” 

Democrat Jimmy Carter was the former governor of Georgia who parlayed being a peanut farmer with a toothy smile all the way to the presidency. He carried his own bags and stayed in supporters’ homes.

Ronald Reagan was deemed unqualified to be president because he was an “actor.” The third time was the charm: Being defeated in 1968 and 1976 didn’t deter him and, in 1980, he finally won the GOP nomination and then won — big — the general election against that earlier underdog, Carter.

Bill Clinton in 1992 was labeled as a governor from a small state (Arkansas) who didn’t have a chance; he had embarrassed himself with a disastrous speech at the Democratic convention four years earlier. But he out-worked and out-hustled everyone else and became a two-term president. 

No African American had ever been elected president. Barack Obama had only been a U.S. senator for two years; people had trouble pronouncing his name. But he won the presidency twice and, to this day, is admired and still popular.

The “Loyola factor” or even the “Loyola moment” has a place in the American political universe and lexicon. It is that special time when, all of a sudden, you sparkle, and everybody is talking about you.

No longer are you a nobody. Now you have the glow of a winner! It seems that you are on a roll. You can’t be denied. It might not stay for long, but love it and revel in it while it lasts.

You can’t truly explain it, but you know you feel it. And that feeling, however brief, you can always treasure.

In the meantime — Go Ramblers!

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.

Tags Barack Obama Barack Obama Bill Clinton Final Four John F. Kennedy Loyola University Chicago Mark Plotkin

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