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Stalking Horse

A “stalking horse” is a candidate put forward in an election to conceal an anonymous person’s potential candidacy.

If the idea of the campaign proves viable, the anonymous person can then declare their interest and run with little risk of failure. It’s similar to a trial balloon in that sense.

A stalking horse candidate is also sometimes used to divide the opposition in order to help another candidate.

Origin of “Stalking Horse”

It’s a metaphorical expression that has evolved to describe a person or strategy that tests a concept or mounts a challenge against someone on behalf of an anonymous third party.

The term comes from hunting, where a hunter would conceal themselves behind a horse, using it as a cover to stalk game.

Translated into political jargon, it refers to an individual or proposal that serves to mask the true purpose or interest of another individual or group.

As Daryl Lyman wrote:

The expression originated hundreds of years ago in old English hunting practices, especially among fowlers. Many kinds of game that would flee at the first sign of humans would not be alarmed by the approach of a horse. Therefore, fowlers trained horses to serve as covers during hunting.

In politics, a stalking horse can be a person who runs against a party leader or incumbent to gauge the strength of opposition, test new ideas, or simply to weaken the target’s position.

This individual may not necessarily expect or even desire to win but is used to gain information, provoke responses, or pave the way for a more serious challenger.

A stalking horse can also refer to a policy or idea put forward to test public reaction without fully committing to it.

If the idea is well-received, it may be adopted; if it fails, it can be disowned with little damage to the party or politician’s overall standing.

Sometimes, a stalking horse is used to challenge or unseat a current leader within a political party without the true challenger having to reveal themselves.

The use of stalking horse strategies can be seen as cunning or strategic but might also be perceived as deceptive or unethical.

It often involves a level of subterfuge that can lead to mistrust or skepticism towards the parties involved.

Use of “Stalking Horse” in a sentence

  • The junior senator’s unexpected challenge to the party leader was later revealed to be a stalking horse strategy, designed to test the waters for a more prominent politician who was considering running for the leadership position.
  • The proposal to increase taxes on luxury goods was initially seen as a stalking horse, meant to gauge public reaction and to draw out opposition before the government introduced its real fiscal plan.
  • Some political analysts believed that the independent candidate in the mayoral race was nothing more than a stalking horse for the major party, aimed at splitting the opposition’s vote and ensuring a more favorable outcome for their preferred candidate.