“Don’t change horses” is a phrase used to urge voters to stick with the incumbent president during times of turmoil and conflict. The full expression is “don’t change horses mid-stream” (or, sometimes, “don’t swap horses midstream”).
The expression is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln who, during the Civil War, said that voters should re-elect him because it would be foolish to change leaders in the middle of such a turbulent time. After his nomination to run for a second term, Lincoln told a group of his supporters,
“I do not allow myself to suppose that either the convention or the League have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or best man in America, but rather they have concluded that it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it in trying to swap.”
Lincoln’s phrase spread quickly. Harper’s Weekly ran a political cartoon which showed “Old Abe” as a steady-looking, bearded horse with a voter sitting in the saddle. Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan, was back in the bushes, surrounded with promises of peace and compromise.
In modern times, the message of sticking with your leader in times of trouble still resonates. Some pundits say that this is what allowed George W. Bush to beat out John Kerry and win a second term. Polls showed that more than anything, voters were concerned about global terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That meant that Bush, the incumbent, was a natural choice for Americans who wanted strength and continuity.
The phrase doesn’t just apply to presidents. In 2009, in the middle of the global economic downturn, MarketWatch urged President Obama to leave Ben Bernanke in his post as chair of the Federal Reserve “so that he can ride out the financial crisis.”
In March 2020, the New York Post suggested that Donald Trump was trying to portray himself as a “wartime president” in order to win the upcoming election. (The “war” he was engaged in was against the coronavirus pandemic.)
“Donald Trump, making his own case for re-election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has been wielding martial rhetoric more and more frequently in his barrage of daily briefings on the unfolding calamity,” The Post wrote. The paper also cited White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, who had told Fox News, “We have essentially a wartime president now, and the war is against this coronavirus. And there can’t be any dissension in the ranks.” The Post reported that Trump’s poll numbers had been up ever since he shifted to the “war president” strategy.
Of course, the “don’t change horses” strategy is not foolproof. In 1932, Herbert Hoover was the incumbent president; his supporters tried to portray him as a sort of wartime leader who was battling the Depression. However, many voters blamed him for the Depression. When Hoover’s supporters urged voters not to change horses, voters chanted, “change horses or drown!”
Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt. Ironically, FDR went on to win re-election by urging voters, once again, not to change horses in mid stream.