The Horse Race in Elections

horse race

The horse race has evolved into a glitzy spectacle featuring huge fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money. But it is still essentially the same sport as when it was first introduced: a contest of speed or stamina between two horses.

For decades, scholars have studied the way media frame elections as a competitive game, emphasizing public opinion polls and giving most attention to frontrunners and underdogs who are gaining momentum. This strategy is especially common in close races, when it has a greater effect on voter turnout. And it is often used to promote the image of democracy as a fair and honest competition.

But as political science professors Johanna Dunaway and Regina Lawrence have found, these quick polls often mislead. The research team analyzed newspaper coverage of gubernatorial and Senate races in 2004, 2006, and 2008. They looked at 10,784 articles published by 259 newspapers between Sept. 1 and Election Day of those years. They found that when a race was close, and especially during the weeks leading up to it, newspapers were more likely to describe the contest as a horse race.

The authors of the study also found that newspapers with large chains or multiple owners were more likely to publish stories that framed elections as a horse race. They also found that these articles were more prevalent when a race was close and when the lead changed frequently. The results suggest that the tendency to frame an election as a horse race is driven by the desire to boost audience engagement and ratings, which in turn increase advertising revenue.

Despite this, researchers believe that the practice of using quick polls to predict an outcome is problematic. They argue that it distorts the voters’ view of a close race and can have the same negative effects on voter turnout as do televised horse races. They also note that the proliferation of quick polls has led to a greater focus on swing states, which have become less expensive to poll.

In the bowels of the grandstand, away from the private suites and the reserved seating upstairs, working-class men gather periodically to stare at banks of TVs that show races from all over the country, even Peru and Argentina. The curses that rise with the stretch runs have the rhythm and ring of universal imprecations.

In the United States, horse racing began with the British occupation of New York City in the 1600s, when tracks cropped up on the plains of Long Island. At this time, the hallmark of excellence for American Thoroughbreds was stamina rather than speed. Then, after the Civil War, speed became the goal. Today, many Americans bet on horse races by betting to win, to place and to show. Win betting is riskier, but the payoffs are higher. Betting to place is more safe, but the payoffs are lower on average. And betting to show means that the bettor is wagering on the horse to finish in either first, second or third place.