How a Horse Race Affects Elections

A horse race is a contest of speed between horses that either are ridden by jockeys or pulled by their drivers. The sport has a long history and was practiced in civilizations across the world since prehistory. It also plays an important role in myth and legend, for example as the steeds of the god Odin in Norse mythology. The first organized horse races were probably chariot or mounted (bareback) events, and later came individual flat races of various distances. The sport is popular in many countries. The current sport is regulated by international and national laws and rules.

Whether you’re sipping mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby or feeling the earth shake as Standardbred horses thunder down the stretch, horse racing is an exciting, fast-paced sport. But behind the glamorous facade lies a world of drug abuse, injuries, and slaughter. Behind the scenes of this brutal sport, horses are forced to sprint — often under the threat of whips and illegal electric shock devices — at speeds that can cause them to suffer from severe and permanent injuries and even hemorrhage in their lungs.

This election season has felt a lot like a horse race from the start. With the mudslinging, name calling and attack ads, it’s easy for voters to lose sight of the real issues at stake. And this can have serious consequences for our country.

For one thing, it’s not good for journalists, voters or the news industry. A growing body of research suggests that when journalists focus on who’s winning or losing instead of policy issues – what’s known as horse race coverage – the electorate is left uninformed and the democratic process suffers.

One study found that corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to frame an election as a competitive game, and that this style of reporting was most prevalent in close races and in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Another study found that horse race coverage favored Donald Trump, who received more coverage than the other candidates seeking the Republican nomination.

A third study examined a collection of newspaper stories from the 2004 presidential primary and 2008 U.S. Senate campaigns, and found that horse race coverage favored the candidate who was leading at that time, with particular emphasis on stories focusing on races in swing states.

A final study, published in 2023 by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, found that when journalists report on elections in a way that focuses primarily on who’s ahead and who’s behind – what they call horse race coverage – voters, politicians and the news media suffer. This type of reporting also leads to an under-informed electorate and erodes confidence in the democratic process. The authors of this working paper argue that if journalists focus on political horse race coverage, they miss opportunities to inform the public about policy issues and positions of candidates. They also note that the quality of coverage deteriorates with time.