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Clown Car

The term “clown car” is often used pejoratively in politics to describe a large and unwieldy field of candidates vying for a particular office, usually when the candidates are perceived as lacking in seriousness, qualifications, or cohesiveness.

The term conjures the image of a small car at a circus from which an improbably large number of clowns emerge, highlighting the chaotic and crowded nature of the candidate field.

More about “Clown Car”

An insult to dismiss the horde of candidates who sought the 2016 Republican nomination.

Clown car is a feature of circuses, an event to which presidential campaigns often are compared. In the big-top stunt, which dates at least as far back as the 1950s, a sizable number of colorfully garbed entertainers emerge from a tiny vehicle. (The New York Times, in a 2001 article, described twenty-three of them squeezing into a Volkswagen Bug.) The phrase meets many of the tests for a popular political expression: it’s alliterative, punchy, and most definitely a put-down.

Not surprisingly, Democratic partisans such as Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz seized on the term. The tart-tongued Democratic National Committee chair said in a 2015 Granite State appearance: “We’re here to tell you that we believe families in New Hampshire and across America can do better, and that’s why we’re here as the clown car of GOP candidates rolls into town.”

Though liberals tend to focus on fringe candidates such as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, more-prominent White House aspirants also got the clown-car treatment. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank typified the genre in a May 2015 article headlined “The Republican Field Is a Clown Car.” Milbank focused on Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had compiled a substantive record in the Senate but who was having trouble separating himself from the pack.

Milbank’s column provoked an angry response from Fox News’s Neil Cavuto, who noted that Democrat Bill Clinton was considered quite a long shot when he took on President George H. W. Bush in 1992. “So beware those who write about clown cars: More often than not, the joke’s on them,” Cavuto asserted. “And suddenly the ones mocking the clowns in that car are the clowns driving it.”

Clown car also can refer to the tendency, even necessity, of presidential candidates running to the ideological extremes to secure their party’s nomination, only to face a more moderate electorate in the general election. In January 2015, Politico columnist Roger Simon wrote in “GOP Clown Car Runs into Ditch” that Republican candidates usually “attack from the right, which can force the eventual nominee farther to the right than the nominee wants to go . . . This risks losing moderate voters in the general election.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Clown Car” in a sentence

  • As primary season approached, political analysts began referring to the crowded field of candidates as a “clown car,” emphasizing both the size and the disparate range of qualifications among the contenders.
  • Some voters found it difficult to take the election seriously, dubbing the long list of candidates as a “clown car” due to the presence of several fringe figures with little political experience.
  • The “clown car” nature of the primary made it challenging for any single candidate to break away from the pack, leading to a protracted and often unpredictable contest.