What Exactly Is a “Stalking Horse”?

Several pundits have speculated that Wesley Clark’s entry into the presidential race makes him a “stalking horse” for Hillary Clinton. (Timothy Noah outlined several possible scenarios in this recent Chatterbox.) But what is a stalking horse, anyway?

In early 16th-century England, a “stalking horse” was one trained to conceal the hunter walking behind it; the practice allowed human predators to sneak up on their prey without attracting suspicion. But by 1594 the term had also evolved into a metaphor for underhanded political dealing, when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,was used to describe rulers who adopted Catholicism “as of a Maske and stalking horse” to hide their hopes of “usurping the kingdoms of other Princes.”

In modern political applications of the phrase, a stalking horse is either a candidate used to divert attention from someone else’s candidacy, or a candidate who splits the vote of a serious contender, perhaps unwittingly, and thus benefits a third, better-positioned candidate. By this second definition, Ross Perot was a stalking horse for Bill Clinton in 1992, Ralph Nader was a stalking horse for Bush in 2000, and almost any third-wheel candidate who loses could be termed a stalking horse for whoever wins.

There are no recent examples of the former sort of stalking horse, since major party conventions have largely eliminated the back-room politicking that would allow a stealth candidate to snag the nomination at the last minute. While Clark could still run and then withdraw his candidacy when Hillary Clinton entered the race, U.S. election law prevents the easy transfer of money or votes from one candidate to another. Campaign-finance restrictions would forbid Clark from giving his campaign war chest to Clinton; even if Clark switched from presidential candidate to second fiddle on the Clinton ticket, he’d still have to give any money he’d collected to charity or to the Democratic Party.

And transferring votes is even harder. Since the first Democratic primaries will take place in January, a stalking-horse Clark would have to withdraw before then or else compete with Hillary. If Clark were to drop out of the race after winning primaries, his delegates would be free to vote for any nominee—in fact, Democratic delegates can always vote as they please—so Clinton would have no guarantee of their loyalty.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Larry M. Bartels of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, Paul Herrnson of the University of Maryland, Ian Stirton of the Federal Election Commission, Allan J. Lichtman of American University, and Tony Welch of the Democratic National Committee.