To be on the “bandwagon” is to follow a group that has a large and growing number of followers.

A bandwagon is literally a wagon which carries the band in a parade. The phrase “jump on the bandwagon” first appeared in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for campaign appearances. As campaigns became more successful, more politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with the success.

The term itself is derived from the era of P.T. Barnum, when it referred to a literal wagon that carried a marching band on it, as part of a larger circus show.

Its first use in a political sense was in 1848 when Dan Rice, described here as “The Clown Who Ran For President,” “invited future-president Zachary Taylor to campaign on his circus wagon, using its music to attract attention for the candidate. Taylor later made Rice an honorary Colonel.”

This raucous method of getting attention became increasingly popular, as more and more politicians began to angle for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with its success. By the turn of the 20th century, candidates such as William Jennings Bryan in 1900 were using bandwagons and loud musicians to garner enthusiasm for their campaigns. That’s when the term started being used in a derogatory way, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.

Eventually the term lost its literal meaning and took on a more figurative one, and soon the idea of a “bandwagon effect” became a staple of political science.

A 2015 article in Psychology Today described “the bandwagon effect” this way: “Researchers have long identified the impact of social conformity in shaping how people think and act. Along with explaining new trends in fashion or popular fads, this bandwagon effect can also influence how people would be likely to vote on important issues. Many voters often prefer not to make an informed choice before voting and simply choose to mimic the behavior of other voters instead. If a poll predicts that a certain candidate will win by a landslide, could voters actually be persuaded to vote for this candidate themselves?”

The so-called “bandwagon effect” in politics has been a topic of much debate and study over the years, particularly during presidential campaigns, with papers such The Washington Post and New York Times using the term to analyze candidate momentum and how it can impact election results.

Of course, the term applies to more than just politics, and has been used to describe everything from geopolitical relationships to trends on Wall Street to consumer and business behaviors.

The most common use of the term “bandwagon” is arguably in sports, where it’s used to describe people who become fans of a team only when they become successful. NPR described the bandwagon effect on the popularity of the Washington Nationals during their 2019 World Series run: “We’ve all done it. We’ve jumped on the bandwagon because something became popular. Many people in the region are now jumping on the Nationals’ bandwagon as they head to the World Series this week.”

The article went on to quote a fan: “It’s not about sports, it’s about human nature. People like to have something to get excited about and like to connect with people.”