Election Metaphors: Horse Racing

A political campaign is often compared to a horse race.  The horses, betting procedures and methods for determining the winner in a horse race are commonly used to describe elections.

Before the Race


A horse race involves people betting a lot of money on horses that they think can win.  In a political campaign, people put a lot of money behind candidates whom they hope can win an election.  Thus an election is often compared to a horse race.

Example:  Candidates wishing to run for the president of the United States must enter the race at least a year or two before the election in order to have time to raise money and get the public to know them.

blog - horse - Racing_at_Arlington_Park

place bets

People at a horse race place bets on the horses that they think will win.  In common terms, we also metaphorically place bets on political candidates.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential election, many conservatives placed their bets on Mitt Romney.  However, he was not able to win the election.

on the ticket

A person who bets at a horse race receives a small piece of paper called a ticket which lists the names of the horses he or she has just bet on.  Thus the horse one bets for is on the ticket.  In politics, we also say that a person who runs for office is on the ticket.  Additionally, one can bet on several horses at the same time, including the horse one thinks will win, place (come in second) or show (come in third) in the race.  Thus, we also say that a president and vice president will be on the same ticket.

Example:  Everyone was surprised when John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be on the ticket with him as the vice-presidential candidate in 2008.

ticket splitters

The metaphorical idea of ticket can be stretched even further when a person votes for candidates from two different political parties.  This is sometimes called splitting the ticket.  The person does this is referred to as a ticket splitter.

Example:  Most political candidates do not like people to be ticket splitters on election day because they hurt the unity of the party.

During the Race

blog - horse - out of the gateout of the gate

Horses begin a race locked behind a wide gate.  When the race begins, the horses are released and run as fast as they can out of the gate.  Metaphorically, anyone beginning a new process may be described as being out of the gate.  In politics, candidates and political figures must make quick decisions and be consistent with their messages.  Thus they must be quick out of the gate.

Example:  Although Barack Obama promised big changes if he were elected president, he was very slow out of the gate and it took years to make any of the changes that he promised during the campaign.

run for office

Horses run to win the race.  Similarly, candidates for political office are said to run in an election to win a position in a government.  We may also call this running for office.

Example:  Any candidate running for office these days needs millions of dollars to have a successful campaign.

running mate

Extending the idea of running for office, the phrase running mate refers to the person who runs for election with someone else.  For example, commonly a vice-presidential candidate is called the running mate of the presidential candidate.

Example:  Conservative women voters were excited when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate for vice president in the 2008 election.

run the risk

Although the origin of this phrase is unclear, when we do something that may have a negative outcome, we may say that we are running a risk.  In horse racing, when the horse runs, it runs with no guarantee that it will win the race.  Thus, there is a risk that the horse will not win.  In politics, a very common phrase to describe something that may have a bad outcome for the person or group is running a risk.

Example:  When political candidates appear on popular TV shows, they run the risk of not being considered a serious professional.

blog - horse - front runnerfront runner

When a horse is winning a race, we say that it is out in front of the other horses.  We can also say that the horse is the front runner.  In a political election, the candidate who is leading in the polls is also referred to as the front runner.

Example:  Usually the candidate is who is the strong front runner a month before an election wins the race.

fast track

In a horse race, the horses run on a dirt track inside a horse racing arena.  If the track gets wet from recent rains, it will be very hard for the horses to run on it.  If the dirt is dry, it will be a fast track for the horses to run on.  In common terms, any person or activity that seems to be moving very quickly is said to be on a fast track. 

Example:  When Paul Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, he started on the fast track to political fame and power in the United States.

blog - horse - inside trackinside track

On an oval track, the shortest distance for the horses to run is close to the inside rail of the track.  In common terms, there are two meanings to the phrase inside track.  First, as in horse racing, to be on the inside track means to be on course to win in whatever competition one is engaged in.  Secondly, the word inside also has the connotation of having restricted or secret access to something.  Thus, to have the inside track on something means that someone has information that is not available to other people.

Example:  In 2008 when the housing market crashed and banks started to fail, the economy was on the inside track to be in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Example:  Television reporters in Washington D.C. are always competing to get the inside track on the latest news from the White House.

outside chance

Just as the horses on the inside of the track have the greatest chance of winning, the horses running on the outside have the greatest chance of losing since they have farther to run to win the race.  Thus to have an outside chance at completing something means that it is not very likely to happen.

Example:  When Barack Obama first announced that he was running for president in 2006, most people thought he only had an outside chance of winning since he was the first African-American in years to try to become president.


Calvin Borel:  Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey
Calvin Borel: Three-time Kentucky Derby winner

jockey for position

When the horses are running the race, the jockeys (persons who ride the horses) must try to get in the best position possible so that they can win the race.  Of course, every jockey wants to be on the inside track so they must fight to get where they want to be.  This is called jockeying for position.  In politics, we may also say that candidates must jockey for position to gain the best advantage and win the election.  Beyond an election, politicians may also jockey for position to try to pass a bill, gain more influence on the president, or earn a higher position within the government.

Example:  When a new president enters the White House, members of Congress of the majority party jockey for position to become the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader.

pull even with

In some cases, one horse may be leading a race, but another horse may catch up and run at the same speed as the front runner.  This is called pulling even with the other horse.  In an election, when one candidate is leading in the polls but another candidate catches up, this may also be called pulling even with the other candidate.

Example:  In 2008, it seemed that John McCain was pulling even with Barack Obama, but Obama was able to win the election in the end.

keep pace with

When two horses are running at the same speed, we may say that they are keeping pace with each other.  In common terms, we may describe many processes at keeping pace with something else if they are occurring at the same rate of speed.

Example:  When an economy is not good and people start losing jobs, it is very sad when the government’s job creation programs cannot keep pace with the rate of job losses.

blog - horse - neck and neckneck and neck

In some horse races, two horses may be running at the same speed in which case the horses’ necks are close to each other and it is difficult to tell who will win the race.  We say that the horses are running neck and neck.   In politics, when the candidates are very close to winning the election, we say that the candidates are running neck and neck.

Example:  In 2004, John Kerry and George W. Bush were running neck and neck for many months but Bush won the election by a small margin.

home stretch

Towards the end of a horse race, the horses must usually run one last section of track in the middle of the arena.  This is called the home stretch because it is the last section or stretch of the track before the horses get home to the finish line.  In common terms, the home stretch is the last tiring section of a competition.

Example:  Several days before a presidential election, the candidates crisscross the country giving speeches at campaign rallies trying to win as many votes as possible in the home stretch.

At the Finish Line

hands down

One unusual phrase borrowed from horse racing is the term hands down.  When a jockey is far ahead of the other horses and is certain to win the race, he or she will relax the grip in the reins controlling the horse and put his or her hands down towards the sides of the horse.  In horse racing, this is referred to as winning the race hands down.  In common terms, when someone wins a sports game or political election by a large margin, this is also called winning hands down.  In a related second meaning, we can also say that something absolutely certain is hands down, usually referring to someone’s opinion of a controversial matter.

Example:  In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter hands down.

Example:  The worst economic times in the United States must be the Great Depression in the 1930s, hands down.

dark horse

A dark horse in a horse race is one that is not expected to do well, but finishes surprisingly well or even wins the race.  The word dark sometimes carries the connotation of something secret or mysterious. In politics, a dark horse is a candidate in an election who surprises everyone with the strong finish.

Example:  In the 2010 primary races for Republicans, many dark horse Tea Party candidates beat out traditional Republican incumbents.

dead ringer

Another unusual horse racing term is a dead ringer.  This term refers to a fast horse that is illegally substituted for a slow horse in a race.  The word ringer is derived from the term ring meaning to substitute for something as in the phrase ring in the New Year.  The word dead is used in the sense of being exact or complete as in the phrase dead wrong. In common terms, a person or thing that looks exactly like someone or something else is called a dead ringer.

Example:  In 2008, a photographer from Indonesia named Ilham Anas gained fame because he is a dead ringer for Barack Obama.

too close to call

In horse racing, the winner is called on the loudspeaker of the racetrack once the winning horse is determined.  If the horses are neck and neck, the announcer may say that the race is too close to call until the officials can review the photographs taken at the finish line.  On an election night, if the candidates are all receiving approximately the same amount of votes, we say that the election is too close to call.

Example:  In 2000, the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was too close to call on election night.  Several weeks later, after many vote recounts, George Bush was declared the winner. 

down to the wire

Another expression similar to too close to call is down to the wire.  Before the days of high-speed cameras, horse racing tracks had a wire suspended above the finish line so that the officials could determine the winner by seeing the first horse that passed under the wire.  In politics, any close election may be called a race down to the wire.

Example:  One might say that the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore went down to the wire.

blog - horse - photo finishphoto finish

In modern times, high-speed photography is used at the end of every horse race.  In cases where the winner is too close to call, the officials look at the photographs to determine exactly which horse won the race.  This is called a photo finish.  Similarly, an election with two candidates earning almost equal totals of votes might be called a photo finish.

Example:  George W. Bush and John Kerry had a photo finish election in 2004.  George Bush won the election by a small margin.

poor showing

As mentioned, the third place position in a horse race is called the show.  This finish implies that even though the horse did not win, it at least showed up near the winner.  In common terms, a showing also implies a good effort although not a win.  In politics, candidates who do not win but make a good effort may be referred to as those with poor showings.

Example:  In the 2010 midterm elections, the Democrats had poor showings in several states and lost many seats in Congress.

bet on the wrong horse

If one bets money on a horse, one hopes that this horse will win the race.  If that horse loses, we say that we simply bet on the wrong horse.  In politics, if we support a candidate who loses an election, we may also say that we bet on the wrong horse.

Example:  No one likes to bet on the wrong horse in an election.  It pays to do research on the views and popularity of each candidate.

Oxbow wins the 2013 Preakness Stakes
Oxbow wins the 2013 Preakness Stakes

pick the winning horse

In horse racing, a person can win a great deal of money if one picks and bets on the winning horse.   In politics, picking a winning candidate in an election is also called picking the winning horse.

Example:  In 2012, Americans who voted for Barack Obama picked the winning horse.

If you tune in to the election coverage on Tuesday night, I am sure you will hear many of these metaphors.  Let me know if you hear any new ones about horse racing!

Next time:  More Election Metaphors

One thought on “Election Metaphors: Horse Racing

  1. Hello,

    I love this blog post! Keep up the great work!

    I have actually created a horse racing jewelry business, and I was wondering if there is any way we could use your cover photo on our website. Please let me know if there anything I can do for you.


Comments are closed.