The Biggest Political Surprises of 2015

We’re approaching the end of what has been, all things considered, a wildly unpredictable and surprising year in politics. The conventional wisdom has been threatened and, at points, outright destroyed in just about every sphere that you might conceivably consider to be political, from the highly secretive decision-making of the Supreme Court to the very public dogfight that is the Republican presidential primary. The most surprising political news in 2015 — and there’s a lot of it — reminds us that, while politics is often boring and monotonous, it just as frequently isn’t.

In some cases, things that pundits explicitly predicted would happen did not. In others, subjects that weren't a hot topic of conversation suddenly exploded in the news. The result was a year of genuinely fascinating political surprises — for better or for worse.

This is, of course, only a partial list. There have been many, many other surprises this year, like the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, the collapse of Rand Paul’s national political career, the early success of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a lot more. But in the name of writing an article instead of a book, here are five of the biggest political shockers of the year.

Donald Trump Becomes & Remains GOP Frontrunner

Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Trump’s initial popularity as a presidential candidate wasn’t a surprise, given that he topped some Republican polls when he flirted with a presidential run in 2011. What’s been shocking is his absolute and continued dominance as a candidate. Despite running an odious, nativist, and unprofessional campaign, he’s been at the top of primary polls since announcing his candidacy in June.

Journalists have predicted Trump’s demise since day one, and they’ve been embarrassingly wrong every time. If Trump gets the GOP nomination, it will be one of the most biggest upsets in the history of presidential politics.

Bernie Sanders Shapes The Debate

Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

I first heard Bernie Sanders’ name float as a possible presidential candidate around 2011, and I immediately scoffed at the idea. How wrong I was. Sanders didn’t just run — he surged in popularity, drawing enormous crowds and emerging as a legitimate threat to Hillary Clinton’s grasp on the Democratic nomination.

More importantly, he’s influenced the debate within the Democratic primary, and forced Clinton (who probably will be the nominee) to make wealth inequality and financial reform a cornerstone of her campaign.

The Confederate Flag Comes Down

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Charleston, South Carolina, survived a very dark day when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black parishioners in a historically black church. What followed was a national discussion about the Confederate Flag, which still hung on the state’s capitol grounds at the time.

The Confederate Flag, and the confederacy in general, has long been a cause celebre within the GOP. But after Roof’s massacre, Republican officials had an abrupt change of heart, and both Democrats and Republicans started calling for the removal of the flag from state capitols and government-issued license plates. The campaign was a success around the country — somehow, elected officials reached bipartisan consensus on an American debate that’s been raging for over 150 years.

Paul Ryan Becomes Speaker of the House

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

John Boehner’s retirement as speaker of the House wasn’t completely unforeseen, but just about everything that happened afterwards was. First, Boehner’s hand-picked successor for the job, Kevin McCarthy, abruptly withdrew from the race. Then, it became clear that not a single Republican in the House of Representatives had enough support within the GOP to win a leadership election.

Except for Paul Ryan, who managed to earn the trust of both mainstream establishment Republicans and far-right conservatives. What’s ironic about this is that, despite the power that comes with the position, Ryan never really wanted the job. ("I don't want to be speaker," he said bluntly). Yet he took it out of party loyalty, and now, a guy who'd prefer to spend time burying his nose in wonky budget details is now responsible for keeping the GOP Congress unified.

Obamacare Survives


When a major portion of the Affordable Care Act came before the Supreme Court for the second time, a lot of very smart people thought it would be struck down. At issue was the law’s subsidies for low-income Americans, and had the court ruled against the law, eight million Americans would suddenly be kicked off of their insurance plans, premiums would skyrocket for many more, and the law would have essentially been gutted.

But that didn’t happen. Incredibly, two of the court’s conservative judges — John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy — sided with the more liberal members of the bench, and the law survived to see another day. Pundits were proven wrong, and President Obama’s signature legislative achievement was cemented.