The Dangers of Framing Elections As a Horse Race

A horse race is a close, highly competitive contest in which each participant attempts to reach the finish line first. It is an exciting and arduous competition with only one winner, but it can also be a frustrating experience for the horses and their jockeys. The goal of the sport is to win a large purse, which is distributed to the top four or five horses in each race. There are various types of horse races, such as handicap races, allowance races, and dirt vs. turf.

While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, the horses running in a horse race are often suffering from injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. The horses are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds that are too fast for them. This can lead to a painful condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding from the lungs. Many of these horses are injected with cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask pain, enhance performance and prevent injuries.

As a result of this perilous industry, more and more people are turning away from racing. The industry is losing fans, revenue and race days. In 2011, researchers commissioned by the Jockey Club admitted that racing was in decline and that the sport would eventually die out.

Despite this, racing continues to churn out horse race stories that frame the campaigns as a competitive game and emphasize the stakes. This kind of reporting may seem trivial, but studies suggest that it has serious consequences. For example, a series of papers led by Johanna Dunaway at Texas A&M University found that news coverage that framed elections as a horse race helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump into the lead during the presidential primaries in 2016.

The study also suggests that horse race reporting is most prevalent when there are close races and in the weeks leading up to election day. It is also more common in newspapers with multiple owners than in single-owner or corporately owned newspapers. Furthermore, it appears that the kind of horse race coverage is more likely to appear in newspapers with a high percentage of Democratic readers, as well as in those with low Democratic turnout.

Another recent paper, by Regina G. Lawrence at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, finds that the type of horse race coverage journalists use has a direct effect on how voters perceive their candidates. The study analyzed 10,784 newspaper articles published in 2004-2006 about state and U.S. gubernatorial and Senate races. The authors found that if an article was written with the perspective that the campaign was a horse race, readers were more likely to view the election as a competitive game and to favor candidates with high levels of financial support.

While it is important to tell the whole story about an election, horse race coverage can contribute to a biased perception of the political process and lead to an oversimplified understanding of what is happening. This is especially true when the horse race story is told from a particular point of view, such as that of the race handicapper.