The Dark-Horse Effect
Once the pundits write a candidate off as a dark horse, they’ll stop at nothing to make the label stick.


Fred Thompson

The media are beginning to get restless. They are ready for the campaign games to begin, but the contestants are not lining up in the starting gate.

So, with space and airwaves to fill, we are now being treated to the speculative phase of the proceedings. Pollsters and pontificators tell us who is in, who is out, who may be in, who may be out, who is definitely out, and how the outs would do if they got in. Included is the obligatory “dissatisfaction with the field” phenomenon.

This results in another candidate category for the media — candidates who should not get in. These are your “dark horses,” recruited or drafted candidates who have obvious qualities, but who may not be committed to running for president, “deep within their bones.” Critics say these people sometimes wind up running out of a sense of civic obligation instead of an innate desire to spend endless hours in moldy basements with strangers. The pundits believe such candidacies never turn out well.

This is the theme of Ed Kilgore’s recent piece in The New Republic, “The Fred Thompson Effect.” Perhaps you can tell from the title who is being used as exhibit A for Kilgore’s thesis. The dark-horse-as-savior topic is an interesting one, but there is also a collateral issue: In the minds of some commentators, the candidate who enters the fray late (by media standards) is by definition a dark horse, and therefore suspect. That is, the candidate would not be a dark horse if his heart were truly in it. If he had the fire in the belly, he would not be late entering the field. Some writers will go to extremes to make the facts fit their thesis.

Kilgore writes that by the time I announced my candidacy for the 2008 nomination “it was already becoming clear that he lacked commitment. Even before his appearance on Leno [in September 2007], there were abundant signs that he was not running for president, so much as walking — or even riding a golf cart — with abundant stops for rest and ice cream. His first Iowa appearance, in August, was at the Iowa State Fair, a must-do for any candidate, and particularly one like Thompson, who had already skipped the official Straw Poll that serves as the major fundraiser for the state GOP. With the eyes of the first-in-the-nation-caucus state on him, Big Fred showed up at the sweaty, extremely informal event sporting Gucci loafers, and proceeded to spend the day tooling around the fairgrounds in the aforementioned cart — a very big no-no for anyone who wasn’t either disabled or a major fair donor.”

This was taken from a story that Fox News’s Carl Cameron did on my trip to the fair. The story, of course, hit all the media outlets and the blogosphere, and provided an immediate narrative for my opponents in the primary. The next thing I knew, Mitt Romney had a 30-second ad showing him sprinting through the woods, “working hard.”

A few weeks later, another story popped up on a New York Times blog claiming that I’d entered one of Iowa’s many diners, refused to shake hands with a single potential voter, and instead sought refuge from the great unwashed in a private room, where I no doubt propped up my Gucci loafers and indulged in large quantities of ice cream. The Times had to retract its blog post within hours because someone eating at the diner happened to post a cell-phone video showing me disturbing the dining experience of just about everyone in the said diner with handshakes, backslaps, and offers to top off their iced tea. None of that mattered, because such facts got in the way of the media narrative of the dark horse, the reluctant armchair candidate, the candidate with no fire in the belly.