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Horse Race Coverage Misses Us

October 23rd, 2022 by dk

I dislike horse race coverage of political campaigns. It conveys that only winning matters. The backstory of each participant can be overlooked, unless they win. The betting odds give horse racing a powerful narrative. Who will get rich from this horse’s performance? (OK, that might be the most appropriate parallel.) Still, politicians are not horses and shouldn’t be covered as if they are.

There’s an important difference. We’re active participants in political races. Or we can be, if we take the trouble to vote. No candidate can win without support expressed by voters. The race is not about the candidates. It’s about us. How well do they understand us? How clearly do they respond to us? Do they inspire us?

The candidates who meet most of us in our moments are the ones who succeed. We’d rather read a careful critique of them, but the outcomes provide a detailed analysis of us.

Examinations of who voted and why usually come after the election, first from the losing party and then from media. They always pledge to learn from mistakes and do better next time. But when the next time comes around, the horse race once again dominates the coverage.

Elections tell us much less about the candidates and much more about ourselves. With that in mind, let me try to explain why I think Republicans are likely to succeed beyond expectations this cycle, but without referencing any candidates directly. The risk I run is that if I’m completely wrong, I’ll have nowhere to hide. So be it.

Political polling has become more difficult and less reliable for several reasons. Fewer people have landlines. Most are not willing to talk to a pollster. Bigots don’t usually identify themselves as bigots. (There are ways around this problem, but it takes more questions and analysis than political campaigns give it.)

When pollsters are viewed as part of the establishment — the “deep state” — respondents may lie to them, just for the fun of it. (Everybody needs a hobby.) Some of these difficulties are acknowledged as a margin for error, which we mostly ignore. Taken together, polling doesn’t accurately reflect us. They’re even worse at predicting our (voting) behavior.

Issues get plenty of poll-driven coverage, but some issues drive people more than others. Abstract concepts — for most of us, that includes war, unemployment, and election integrity — don’t tug on us like issues that impact us directly, like inflation or crime.

Some issues are static. Others are cumulative. In all but a few states, abortion is as legal and available now as it was several months ago. We don’t tend to vote based on something that happened four months ago. Even if what happened was bad, it affects behavior that it hasn’t gotten worse.

Contrast that with consumer price increases. If a gallon of milk increases 20 cents, that is on top of last month’s increase, and the increases from the months before that. It’s bad news that’s getting worse. Same with housing availability, job security, and most economic issues.

Some issues are statistically static but emotionally cumulative. Homelessness and property crime don’t have to get worse for it to feel like they’re getting worse. We just get tired of dealing with some problems more than others. Even after problems are being solved, our emotions can keep us wary and worried for a long time. 

Conservatives have learned to channel their disgust into angry activism. Disgusted liberals tend to become hopeless and apathetic. Which group of disgusted citizens is more likely to vote?

Taken together, conservatives are more likely to be undercounted and extra-motivated. The eventual vote tally and the candidates themselves simply reflect our moods and motivations back to us.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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