6/3: The Battle of the Cliches: Is it a “Tossup” or a “Slam Dunk?”

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

Ever wonder why a landslide election result might be referred to as “no contest” but you’d never hear “nolo contendere” used to describe a sporting event when one team runs up a lopsided score?

caricature of Lee Miringoff

The answer is simple.  Political terminology doesn’t export well outside the Beltway crowd.  In contrast, a sports metaphor can go the distance in providing the dug-out chatter used to describe the ecstasy of victory or the agony of defeat.  That is, after all, what often accompanies election coverage when a candidate lands a knockout punch and his opponent goes down for the count, or his handler throws in the towel.  No split decision there.

As a practitioner of political punditry, give me a good sports metaphor to label a critical campaign moment, preferably during the appropriate sports season (this is the super bowl of primary nights) and voila! I’m in sound-bite Heaven. But, imagine Bob Costas turns to me in the announcer’s booth for a morsel of color commentary, and I pull out a pithy phrase from my Ph.D. dissertation in political science.  I’m one and done, and it doesn’t even have to occur during March Madness!

My list of sports favorites is long.  Baseball provides politics with a whole line-up of candidate commentary.  He stepped up to the plate.   He hit that question out of the park.  He’s pitching a shutout.  He threw ‘em a curve ball. Bet you’ve got a bull pen full of one-liners, as well.

Football phrases are also aplenty. He should drop ten and punt (a Marist Poll office favorite).  He’s doing an end run.  He fumbled that question.  And, of course, there’s the desperate candidate tossing a Hail Mary pass.  Maybe you’d like to suit up and tackle a few on your own.

But, first, grant me a moment of political pollster fantasy and permit my turning the world of sports commentary inside-out, or is it upside-down?  Either way, with the aid of an occasional translation, it might go something like this.

It’s the ninth inning of the inaugural game of the season… Of course, I mean Opening Day.  The pitcher seems to be losing his delivery and is in danger of losing the arms race altogether.  The spectators in the galleries, who turned out in record numbers for the inauguration, are growing restless and calling for cloture.

The commander-in-chief (the manager) consults his Secretary of Health and Human Services (we’re talking team trainer here).  “Relieve him of his responsibilities,” the Secretary pleads.  Costas asks me, “What do you think he’ll do?”   My retort: “Bob, I think the chief executive is going to override the recommendations of his advisor.  There’s no need to ration resources this early in the session or mandate a change.”

The chief executive fears his policy will not be supported by the campaign operations team out in the field and calls for a stoppage to head off the need to exercise his veto.  They gather in the middle of the political spectrum.   They talk and talk and talk.

“Bob, I think the judge (home plate umpire, for those of you who haven’t figured this all out by now) has heard enough and wants to end this filibuster.  Yes, we finally have an executive decision here.   The commander in chief is, indeed, sticking with the incumbent.”

“Right you are, Professor.”

“He’s counting on his opposition research here, Bob.  He’s ordered an over shift to the right. No room for a margin of error…It worked…ball game over, motion to adjourn!”

On the field, “thanks for letting me complete my term,” the pitcher quips to the commander in chief as he leaves the dais.

What have we learned from this “reality politics” word game?  Well, we’re just in time for the opening bell for sports clichés for election cycle 2012.  And, I’m warming up on the sidelines. The morning line has been established.  There are front-runners and long-shots.  Maybe the favorite will put the field away, or maybe, it’ll come down to the wire and be a photo finish.  Can a challenger step up in class and outdistance all comers in this 2012 Breeders’ Cup of politics?

I wonder what the Gallup Poll or the Roper Archives have to say about the current entries.  Or, better yet, the Maris Poll.  Oops, I mean the MarisT Poll.

This much is certain.  The likelihood is that next spring the Triple Crown will not refer to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont stakes.  Saddle up for Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and watch the candidates jockey for position.