By Jaclyn Bruner–The Horse Race of Presidential Politics
It wouldn’t be too difficult to edit together a fancy video segment juxtaposing news anchors and pundits, one after the other, exhibiting the “horse race” metaphor as it applies to presidential election cycles. It is an easily digestible metaphor centered wholly on the winner take all, one shot, race to the finish. A race, of course, where spectators sit back and watch the animals strain to be the best, the first, the champion. Although the average American voter may fail to comprehend the origins of “derby day,” or the high stake betting associated with horse racing, the thrill of victory and agony of a close defeat is very palpable in American political culture. In presidential politics, the horse race provides a metaphor for the everyman to understand, simultaneously heightening the sense of urgency experienced overall.
Is this a symptom of our twenty-first century, twenty-four cable news cycle? Does the image of the horse race circulate because of the contentious climate in today’s national and divisive elections? A campaign song pamphlet from 1858 entitled “The White House Race” suggests differently. Set to the tune of “Camptown Races,” the lyrics compare candidates to horses in a mad dash, enticing the voter to bet on the “mustang colt,” over the “old gray” horse. From the parody of the tune to the imagery advanced in the lyrics, the horse race is alive and well on the way to the White House, long before television – let along cable news outlets – heralded horse race mentality of presidential politics.
The tune, “Camptown Races” may be a familiar one even to modern audience and its original lyrics also detail a horse race. As the historical marker in Bradford County, Pennsylvania explains, Stephen Foster’s song was written in 1850 about thirty years after the sport had been banned in the state. Pennsylvania Historian Chris Miner suggests that although once considered a spectacle in cities, the sport was outlawed for its “riotous” nature which consisted of running the races down public streets in Philadelphia and elsewhere. But, as Steven A. Reiss details in his book The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime, the sport persisted, perhaps in part to its urgent and high stakes nature of gambling on races, eventually reemerging under legal protections using the race track venues modern audiences recognize today.
Although the horse race metaphor circulates well among publics of voters, one might ask why such a rhetoric may be so pervasive. Why does the electorate respond to the horse race comparison in more recent presidential campaigns? One explanation may be the theory advanced by Allan J. Lichtman in his book, Predicting the Next President, in which he states, “like the [presidential election] polls themselves, the horse-race commentators can never be wrong” (8). Commentators in a horse-race are, quite literally, calling it as they see it – unable to predict what could happen in the next moment. Lichtman continues, suggesting that the metaphor offers an insight into campaigns, but very little insight to elections.
This could not be more accurate and offers one explanation for the pervasive nature of this turn of phrase. The comparisons to the race are clear as the public digests a candidate’s “run” for the presidency as a “run” towards the White House. Political Scientist Anthony C. Broh describes the horse race metaphor as a framework journalists can access that privileges polling data and enhances the entertainment value of presidential campaigns. He writes, “A horse is judged not by its absolute speed or skill but in comparison to the speed of other horses” (515).
There is a strategy for managing curves, there are other competitors who may kick dirt up along the way and incredible breakaways down the home stretch. However, as any spectator of the race is well aware, the horse you bet on at 25-to-1 odds could cost you, while the horse that is a long shot might pay out more in the end. Because of the unpredictable nature of the horse racing scene, it is enthralling and exciting. But most of all, it is anybody’s guess. This best translates to the story campaigns and the media like to tell of an electorate, on the edge of their seats, waiting to see who will come out of the gate strong and who will eke across at the finish line.
Broh goes on to assert that the metaphor serves to bolster the democratic process, even while demonstrating some clear problems. Whereas no such claim is made here, the rhetorical force of the metaphor is certainly worth examining. The accessible image of a horse race, the long tradition of the sport in American culture, and the entertainment value of the chase all collude to bring the metaphor to a memorable photo finish.
- Allan J. Lichtman, Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2012).
- Anthony C. Broh, “Horse-Race Journalism: Reporting the Polls in the 1976 Presidential Election,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 44(1980): 514-529.
- Steven A. Reiss, The Sport of Kings and Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York, 1865-1913 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011).
- “Camptown Races Historical Marker,” ExplorePaHistory.org, Accessed April 30, 2014, http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-2FA.