Horse race journalism is a controversial form of political coverage. It means reporting on politics with the help of sports metaphors. Horse race journalism is particularly prevalent in election campaign coverage, mainly in the context of opinion polls.
Horse race coverage looks approximately like this: at the beginning of the campaign, a candidate goes into the race with a head start, soon gets tired, regains strength only after a quarter of the race, loses speed again and falls back at the back straight, only to make the home stretch by a short head and win the race in the end. The race is exciting from the beginning to the end (Broh 1980). Election polls are useful to journalists drawing on this metaphor, since they can tell the “spectator” who is ahead in the race and whether a candidate’s position is improving or deteriorating throughout the race. With the increasing diffusion of election polls and forecasts since the 1940s, horse race journalism has been on the upswing.
However, it has been around much longer than modern opinion polling. As early as 1888, the Boston Journal used the horse race image in its election coverage (Littlewood 1999). It has been criticized ever since, and with the emergence of modern polling techniques, the criticism has also been directed against election polls and the way journalists use them. The following statement is typical of the prevailing criticism: “Instead of covering the candidates’ qualifications, philosophies, or issue positions, polls have encouraged journalists to treat campaigns as horse races, with a focus on the candidates’ popularity, momentum, and size of lead” (Atkin & Gaudino 1984, 124).
According to its critics, horse race journalism trivializes politics by reducing it to a sports event with gladiators and spectators. Thrilling entertainment therefore takes priority over factual information in campaign coverage. Horse race journalism thus contributes to depoliticization and trivial spectacle. Polling results are hardly used to analyze the voters’ motives, but rather provide the material for a credible description of the horse race in the campaign. Today, the horse race coverage outshines every other campaign topic of substance – more time and space is attributed to horse race coverage of the US presidential campaigns than to all other issues combined (Farnsworth & Lichter 2003; Patterson 2005). In all other western democracies, the horse race coverage is not yet quite as dominant, though it is on the rise there, too.
Moreover, horse race coverage leads to a focus on the frontrunners in the campaign. Aside from reporting on candidates’ positions in the opinion polls, the media also cover their character and the composition of their image. “While the character of the candidates is obviously of crucial importance for a meaningful democratic choice, the horse-race metaphor runs the risk of emphasizing beauty – some horses are gorgeous animals – and neglecting differences on issues of substance” (Broh 1980, 520).
Representatives of horse race journalism defend this kind of coverage, claiming that many people are not particularly interested in politics. Describing “distant” and “alien” politics with familiar sports language could raise interest in political events. According to the proponents of this kind of journalism, most voters are primarily interested in who is leading and who is behind in the campaign. This, they say, does not necessarily exclude coverage on political issues. Horse race coverage could even serve as a door opener for issue-related coverage. In addition, it has another advantage: journalists have a natural interest in portraying a race as “open” for as long as possible, since the interest in its result would otherwise slacken. This reduces the danger imminent in the mass media, that a premature declaration of the winner turns the campaign into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Horse race coverage employs a number of stylistic devices. Aside from the sports analogy, comparisons are used to portray the campaign as a dynamic event. More often than not, polling results from different points in time are compared with each other, portraying the candidates’ ups and downs in the campaign. Even minor changes in the polls are dramatized with the help of the horse race frame; erroneous interpretations of polling data by journalists are not a rarity (Patterson 2005).
Polls are also used to describe the influence of individual campaign events on the race – for example the impact of televised debates. Journalists use such media events in order to illustrate trends and changes in the voters’ support. Changes in public opinion are portrayed in conjunction with events. Incidents during the campaign therefore take on great significance for the candidate’s position in the race: each and every mistake, appearance, and blunder can influence the candidates’ image, boost them, or make them trip. Comparisons are also made between individual states or regions, so that the entire race is composed of numerous individual sprints.
- Atkin, C. K., & Gaudino, J. (1984). The impact of polling on the mass media. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 472(1), 119 –128.
- Broh, C. A. (1980). Horse-race journalism: Reporting the polls in the 1976 presidential election. Public Opinion Quarterly, 44, 514 –529.
- Farnsworth, S. J., & Lichter, R. (2003). The nightly news nightmare: Network television’s coverage of the US presidential elections, 1988 –2000. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Littlewood, T. B. (1999). Calling elections: The history of horse-race journalism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Patterson, T. E. (2005). Of polls, mountains: US journalists and their use of election surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, 716 –724.
- Plissner, M. (2000). The control room: How television calls the shots in presidential elections. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Sigelman, L., & Bullock, D. (1991). Candidates, issues, horse races, and hoopla: Presidential campaign coverage, 1888 –1988. American Politics Research, 19, 5 –32.