Lexicon Valley

When Did Baked In Become So Baked In?

A literal Donald Trump cake.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

In what precious little downtime they have this pell-mell campaign, the commentariat is apparently relieving stress in the kitchen, gearing up for holiday sweets, or bingeing on The Great British Bake Off.

Consider a few remarks from last month. On RedState, Jay Caruso observed, “The people showing up to rallies are baked in supporters. They are people who are going to vote for Trump, no questions asked.” Appearing on The PBS News Hour, David Brooks noted that Clinton’s “e-mail story and the other stories are sort of baked in the cake.” The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson’s concluded “the great majority of the electorate’s support appears baked in.” And as a political science graduate student explained to the Wall Street Journal: “Partisan political preferences are so thoroughly baked in that voters may be impossible to sway.” As just these few examples suggest, baked in seems, well, baked into our political analysis these days.

Baked in—an expression that rests on the idea that an ingredient baked into a cake is like a part inextricably incorporated into the whole—isn’t exactly new. Quote investigator Garson O’Toole traces it to Walter Wriston, former head of Citibank, who used it to characterize the inevitable consequences of late 1970s monetary policy: “It’s baked in the cake that we’re going to have a recession in 1980.” Since then, the finance community has taken up baked in to name “projections, expectations, and other news items … already taken into account” in the market, as Investopedia explains. Here’s a recent example from MarketWatch: “Twitter is a stock that is priced to perfection if you consider that an acquisition by Google, if it happens, is already baked in.”

Companies like Google and Twitter are familiar with baked in, for the tech industry has also adopted the expression for features “built into” a new phone, game, or interface. These days, for instance, firms are especially, as this lead from Engadget shows, eager to bake artificial intelligence into new technologies: “Just a day after Google revealed its premium Pixel phone and Google Home featuring Assistant AI baked in, Samsung is making a splash by buying up some AI power of its own.” The tech industry may have cooked up this baked in organically, what with its taste for cookies and breadcrumbs, but the close ties between the investment world and startup culture likely facilitated the idiom’s uptake and adaptation.

Baked in puffed out in the 2010s, if the News on the Web Corpus is any measure. We’ve described tax rates as not baked into the Constitution, fact checking as baked into modern reporting, and past emissions as baked into climate change models. We’ve described logical fallacies as baked into Oliver Stone’s storytelling and the fight against bigotry as baked into Stan Lee’s storytelling. Ice-skating culture? High stress is baked in. Charitable giving? Efforts are afoot to bake that into Canadian culture. The inclusion of people with differing abilities into work culture? We need to bake that in, too. We must even bake the abundance of dark matter into our fundamental understanding of the universe. Baked in is a metaphorical sponge cake, soaking in whatever flavor is fancied.

Yet it was in 2008 that baked in seemed to break into politics. Speaking to the Washington Post, GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio weighed in on Clinton’s chances against Obama in Virginia: “What new could you possibly tell a voter about Hillary Clinton that they don’t already know? On Hillary, the cake is already baked in the voter’s mind.” He goes on: “The guy who isn’t baked in the voter’s mind is Barack Obama. At the end of the day, his issue positions would be his undoing in a state like Virginia.” That turned out not to be baked in.

Baked in is talky and homey, condensing the abstract concept of inevitability or irreversibility into a simple, sweet sound bite.

There’s also a fated quality to our use of the expression. Scandals have broken, polls have undulated, the news has been volatile, and yet, for much of the race, Clinton has seemed unable to break ahead and Trump somehow never fell through his floor of support. How are we to make sense of this? Logical dilemma, false equivalency, blind spots, confirmation bias, identity-protective cognition? Yes, science can provide the explanation, but metaphor helps us understand it on an immediate gut level: It’s all just so baked in.

And yet. As baked as the cake may be this election, one candidate is proving that not all cakes are of equal bake. Baked in may imply a treat, but the idiom can’t disguise how unpalatable, even toxic, the Trump campaign has become.