How A Media Metaphor Took Root In GOP Political Circles

Apr 27, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:09 pm
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And next we have the story of a buzz phrase. It's a phrase that political analysts have been using to fill airtime this presidential election season. And they have used it a lot.

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So where did it come from? Here's NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: We'll title this one, The Mystery Of The Media Metaphor, one so compelling it took root in political circles for this Republican primary season.

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MARK HALPERIN: The real open lane, George, is still the establishment lane.

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CHRIS WALLACE: Three governors and Rubio in the so-called establishment lane.

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JOHN KASICH: There's the establishment lane, the anti-establishment lane, and then there's the Kasich lane.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Mark Halperin on ABC, Chris Wallace on Fox News and Ohio Governor John Kasich himself during a primary debate. So here's the idea. With 17 Republican candidates, there were so many people in play they had to be assigned lanes, this one for the favorites of party insiders, another for those beloved by social conservatives or anti-Washington voters or Libertarians.

And candidates had to prove they were the best in those different lanes, which is different than saying they would actually win. I could find no reference to the lane metaphor on Fox News or CNN during the entire 2012 campaign. But this time, it's all over.

LYNN VAVRECK: I will admit that the first time I heard someone describe the candidates as being in lanes and competing within lanes, my blood pressure went up a little bit. My blood boiled a little bit.

FOLKENFLIK: Lynn Vavreck is a professor of political science at UCLA. The definitions of these lanes, she says, prove pretty squishy.

VAVRECK: I'm all for shorthand. And I'm all for helping people understand the political process in intuitive ways. But I think the lanes analogy obscures too much of what's really going on to be helpful.

FOLKENFLIK: Ben Zimmer is executive editor of vocabulary.com. And he writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal.

BEN ZIMMER: The lane metaphor seems to break down when you think of a bunch of candidates crowding into a single lane. Then you have some other candidates over in another lane. It doesn't necessarily work according to any real-world race, whether by foot or by vehicle or by horse.

FOLKENFLIK: Zimmer pointed me to the horserace obsessed blog "The Fix." Zimmer said he believed the metaphor surfaced there in August 2011. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza writes "The Fix."

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I was simply trying to find a way to group these people that made sense to me. How do you wrap your mind around 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 candidates?

FOLKENFLIK: Cillizza says a Republican consultant sketched out the idea with him on a napkin during a long lunch. Cillizza deployed the idea of lanes again on MSNBC in 2013 to predict this year's field. And he has used it ever since, joined by other pundits.

Sad to say, the theory cratered after the first few primaries. John Kasich won the establishment lane by default. But he's so far behind that he's praying for a Hail Mary at the convention. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are both anti-establishment voices, driving in the outsider lane.

CILLIZZA: All I know at this point is Donald Trump is in the 2016 election a destroyer, a car crusher of the lane theory.

FOLKENFLIK: Cillizza says he was just crystallizing something that was out there in the ether. And there's evidence to support that. After we talked, I did an even broader search. In June 2011, two months before that Cillizza column, former Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti appeared on MSNBC.

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LIZ SIDOTI: Rick Perry's looking at this field and saying, if there's a lane to run in, this is the lane that I can occupy.

FOLKENFLIK: Political reporters say hey, the lanes just capture how candidates play to different elements of a party's base and may still hold true for future races - Maybe so, but not this time around. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.