The Presidential Horse-Race
One function of metaphorical language is to simplify ideas or events which might be otherwise difficult to envision or articulate. Sometimes, as in the case of religious metaphors or distinguished poetry, metaphorical language articulates phenomena or concepts which could not be otherwise expressed. Often, metaphorical expression distills new “words” or associations which come to represent the previously unarticulated idea or event. In the case of modern Presidential political campaigns, an intricate set of public relations, poll studies, rhetorical polish, candidate imagery and a parsing of opinions, political beliefs, and overall vision is necessary for survivability, let alone for victory. To understand such complex, deeply specialized functions as contributing to one overall motive: to be elected, metaphorical speech has proven expedient in commentary on modern elections. Understanding an analysis of two common metaphors for Presidential campaigns: the horse-race and the battle, may be useful to potential voters who want to understand verbal techniques used in campaigns.
Two common approaches to distilling the complex set of skills and obstacles which comprise a modern Presidential political campaign into an easily comprehensible metaphor are: the metaphor of the horse-race, and the metaphor of a battle. The horse-race metaphor is usually applied to the candidates across the board, as group, whereas the battle metaphor is most often employed in relation to a contest between a pair of candidates. Neither of these applications is exclusionary, although each of the metaphors are, in fact, euphemistic in terms of “glossing over” the very real aspects of dirt-digging, scandal mongering, and negative attacks which everyone realizes is an integral part of American Presidential campaigns, each of the metaphors also reveals itself, through analysis, as more or less euphemistic than its counterpart. This degree of euphemism is, in fact, the most important difference between the horse-race and battle metaphors, with the metaphor of battle, obviously, lending itself more readily to analogous expression of the “dirtier” aspects of campaigning.
The horse-race metaphor is not exempt from the dirtier aspects of campaigning in that it is well-known that many horse-races are ‘fixed” and much of the voting public also suspects elections, even Presidential elections and even recent Presidential elections, may be also “fixed.” On the other hand, the horse-race metaphor suggests a sense of good-sportsmanship — energetic and momentous rivalries, positioning, inherent strengths and weaknesses and involves also odds-makers and betters which can be viewed as metaphorical expressions of pundits and voters. If you “back” a candidate you have metaphorically bet a horse and the extent to which your backing of this candidate is passionate or pragmatically urgent, that represents the cash-bet in the horse-race.
The “field” of horses makes a handy metaphor for the “fields” of candidates and the track demonstrates that there are traditional methods and “lengths” that all of the horses (candidates) must run — and in full view of the odds-makers and betters, ie — the pundits and voters. The horse-race is itself the election and outcome.
The horse-racing metaphor illustrates that many important aspects of the race; the breeding, training, and conditioning of the horses for example has taken place out of the public eye and this represents the back-room “grooming” and caucusing of Presidential political candidates. The aspect of betting also metaphorically relates to political fund-raising, because bet-making impacts the odds in horse-racing just as fund-raising impact the polls and “odds” in Presidential campaigns.
Pre-election “buzz” corresponds to the pre-race assembling of horses at the starting gate. Of course, the pre-race activity of any horse-race is far more arduous and long-lasting than the race itself as in Presidential campaigns it can take a lifetime just to get into the potion to make a serious run, ie– to get in the “starting gate.” The actual horse-race, proper, corresponds to the primaries and conventions and then, ultimately the general election. If one so desired, it would be easy enough to break up a typical race-track into sections in order to fully extend the metaphor o the primary/general election time-line of Presidential campaigns. Sometimes, in horse-races, there is a “photo-finish” where great care and analysis must be undertaken to determine a winner; in presidential elections recounts and even Supreme Court decisions, as we all well know, provide a “photo finish” a common occurrence in horse-racing.
While the horse-racing metaphor is quite a compatible one for Presidential campaigns, the more cynically-charged battle-metaphor, though less comprehensive in association, speaks quite well to the overall energy and urgency of political campaigns. Foremost among its useful associations is the urgency which is related to the idea of a battle. Battles mean something, they mean life or death to those involved in them; whereas a horse-race is almost always merely diversionary. In fact, the urgency and universality of the battle metaphor are the components of it which seem to surpass the utility of the horse-racing metaphor because horse-racing is, after-all, a game or sport and battels take part of actual political social struggle as do Presidential campaigns.
To some extent, the battle metaphor is less-specific in its connotations than the horse-racing metaphor and it certainly suggests a sinister capacity to Presidential campaigns that is more or less absent from the horse-racing metaphor even if you take into consideration that horse-racing tracks are just as dangerous due to a criminal/money element for some people who participate in them as a battle due to gambling influences and the impact of money. Nevertheless, the battle metaphor brings up images of wholesale death and destruction which are sadly too compatible with modern Presidential campaigns. By this, is meant an implication that elected presidents can engage in foreign policy which leads to war and other forms of hostilities in the world-arena.
The battle metaphor does contain a few possible misleading connotations. One danger of using the battle metaphor to describe Presidential campaigns is not that an undeserved cynicism will infiltrate the voting public’s minds, but that a desensitization to real battle and warfare may result from comparison to something which, despite its ugliness, remains a far less ugly business than warfare — namely Presidential politics. Nevertheless, “collateral” damage in battles is an apt metaphor for the disenfranchised voters, or even “casualties” of a particular elected official or administration. If Katrina victims who perished due to an arguable lapse in Presidential authority count as collateral damage — and they do — the perhaps the battle metaphor is gaining ground on that horse-race metaphor in terms of speaking figuratively in relation to the increasingly complex and somewhat alienating business of presidential politics. As in warfare, the ends often justify the means and this seems to be verified by the conduct of recent political candidates for the office of President of the Unites States of America.
In conclusion: the horse-racing metaphor appears to be much more complex and deeply compatible with the intricacies and realities of Presidential elections, whereas the battle metaphor seems most compatible with transmitting a sense of urgency and consequence for Presidential elections. By observing and contemplating these metaphors, voters are more likely to grasp the important fundamentals about Presidential campaigns without having to be aware of details and specifics which may not be as readily accessible to them.