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A Tale of Two Horse Races

Tuesday’s a big day, in both the US and Australia.  In the States, we’ll finally know the winner of the metaphorical horse race. Back here, our horse race is of a literal kind, as we celebrate the race that stops a nation.  But as a metaphor for the election process, the “horse race” is lacking: in reality, the American presidential election is nothing like a horse race.

For one, in racing, any horse can win.  Sure, short-priced horses win most of the time, but sometimes the one paying $21 who pips the favourite at the post, and, more often than you might expect, it’s the real roughie that gets up. Like when Mine that Bird came from far, far behind to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby and paid $51, or when, just this Saturday, Too Hi Tek won at Rosehill, paying 101:1 odds.  In the American Presidential election, it becomes a two-horse race very quickly. Betting on Jill Stein would be just giving the bookie your money. There are no outside winners in Presidential elections.

What’s more, the process of the election is not at all similar to a horse race. Even in a staying race, horse races are over pretty quickly. Sure, there’s a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes but, ultimately, in a minute or so, we know the outcome. Even in a photo finish, it doesn’t take that long for the results to be finalized. Start-to-finish, we’re talking 15 minutes, tops. There’s none of that patient agony that many sports make us endure: a horse race is an adrenaline rush start to finish.

The sport of kings is also the sport of second changes. While it’s rare that a losing presidential candidate has a second try, that isn’t the case in horse racing. After a big win- or a big loss- a horse can back up the next week and race again: while winning is forever, a loss is only temporary.

Fortunately, there are a couple of other sport metaphors that are a much better fit for Presidential politics.

For example, you could compare presidential politics to boxing match: just two competitors, going face-to-face, slugging each other until one of them is knocked out and, if that doesn’t happen, judges declare the winner.

Or you could compare it to a cricket match: two teams playing a game that drags on forever, where it’s sometimes difficult to know who’s winning, and it can all change in a heartbeat if a few key players get out quickly. It’s a game of tactics, of patience, and bad weather can change everything.

Or you could compare it to a tennis tournament: the lightweights are usually knocked out early, the matches can seem like they never end, and the best players know what shot to play in which situation.  Occasionally, the most powerful player wins, but usually it’s the one who can balance power, brains, discipline and talent.

Or you could realize that comparing politics to sport is silly and dangerous. That, as genuine as my tears of joy were when the siren went in the 2012 AFL Grand Final. there are much higher stakes in deciding which people will make the policies that affect real lives. Maybe, instead of picking a side and going for a win  —  and the other side’s loss — we could start to treat politics as something other than a zero sum.

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