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November 5, 2000 - Election Metaphors - 2002-02-01

INTRO: Today, Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble talk with a political scientist about the terms a lot of Americans are using when they talk about the American presidential campaign.

AA: You might think George W. Bush and Al Gore were horses in a race or soldiers in a war, if all you listened to were the metaphors coming off the "campaign trail."

RS: Jack Pitney knows that mythical road that only politicians and reporters travel. He's an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. He says metaphors usually come from war or sports because politics is about conflict, about winning and losing.

AA: And where better to fight it out than in those "battleground states" we keep hearing about.


PITNEY: "Battleground states are those in which either candidate might win, in which both of them are putting a great deal of time, money and effort. And that's particularly important in a federal system such as the United States where elections hinge on very specific geographical territories. We elect members of Congress at the local level, and in our presidential elections the outcome hinges on our Electoral College, which in turn depends on the states. Hence, candidates fight over individual states in order to get a majority in the Electoral College."

RS: "And what about 'swing states'?"

PITNEY: "'Swing states' are a very similar kind of concept, but a different kind of connotation. Swing states are those that tend to sway between one party and the other in terms of the election. But whether they become 'battlegrounds,' however, depends on whether the candidates fight for them."

AA: "A 'ground war'! Do they have 'air strikes' too?"

PITNEY: "The idea of a 'ground war' is that the candidates will put a great deal of effort into individual voter contact, sending campaign volunteers out house-to-house, as opposed to the so-called air war, in which you have candidates placing all their effort into broadcast media, into the electronic advertising. So, very often in the United States you hear political professionals talking about certain states being an arena of 'ground war' and others being the arena of 'air war.'"

AA: "So is it a mixed metaphor if you say that the two candidates are 'neck-and-neck' in a battleground state. Does that mix up horse racing and war?"

PITNEY: "Very much, you're mixing both the horse racing metaphor in which when two horses are very close together, people say they are neck-and-neck, and in a battleground state."

RS: "Which takes us into the 'war room,' which really isn't a 'war room' at all."

PITNEY: "That's right, a 'war room' is a command center, an area for coordination of a campaign. Hillary Clinton in 1992 dubbed the central Clinton campaign headquarters the 'war room.' That's a term that comes, again, from the military. You have a war room in the Pentagon, a war room in the White House, and those are places where the president or the U.S. military would coordinate forces during a military conflict."

RS: "[Next question:] Is there money in a 'war chest'?"

AA: "And do they keep the war chest in the war room?"

PITNEY: "Well, as far as I know, the war chest is kept elsewhere, in the U.S. Treasury, at least at the federal level, but a war chest is a metaphor for the amount of money that a campaign has."

AA: Jack Pitney is just out with his own book "The Art of Political Warfare." He ends with a chapter on some less-violent political metaphors --

RS: for instance, from the medical field.


"When you talk about politics as medicine, people talk about 'let the healing process begin.' When a politician proffers a policy proposal, he or she will say, 'This is good medicine for what ails us.'"

RS: In the end, though, he says terms from war and sports -- like "on the ropes," meaning a faltering boxer literally up against the ropes of the boxing ring -- are just too irresistible.


"Those are the predominate metaphors, although politicians sometimes try to make them more subtle because people don't want to hear politicians sound overly offensive or aggressive. Nevertheless, Vice President Gore has been talking a lot in these terms lately because he's saying 'I'm fighting for you. I will fight for this. I will fight for that. And that's very much a rallying cry -- another military term -- to mobilize -- another military term -- his base."

AA: Jack Pitney from Claremont McKenna College, keeping his eye on the finish line this coming Election Day in America.

RS: And, as always, we're keeping our eye on American English. Send your questions to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA or

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "The Main Event/Fight"/Barbra Streisand