Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'dead-cat bounce'

The phrase, suitably festive for Halloween, has gained currency in political circles to explain polling blips that don't mean anything.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Hillary Clinton might have been hoping for a dead-cat bounce in the South.

Dead-cat bounce: An all-too-vivid description of a brief recovery in otherwise declining poll ratings.

“Dead-cat bounce” is a common phrase in the investment industry; in conjunction with Halloween, Business Insider and other publications recently featured it as a “spooky” financial word.

“When a black cat crosses your path, it might mean bad luck,” wrote Alice Gomstyn of The Alert Investor. “But when a dead-cat bounce is before you, it might mean something good, albeit very fleeting: a temporary rise in share prices.”

Merriam-Webster dates its use from 1985 and says it is drawn “from the facetious notion that even a dead cat would bounce slightly from a sufficient height.” British lexicographer Susie Dent, in a new book, singled it out as particularly popular slang in UK banking circles.

But it’s also come up for years in connection with US elections. Earlier this month, The New York Times’s Nate Cohn looked at Hillary Clinton’s low support among white voters in Georgia and Louisiana: “No 'dead cat bounce' among Deep South whites,” Mr. Cohn said on Twitter.

Back in July, Daily Kos writer “Obama Amabo” assessed the potential that the GOP convention would help Donald Trump: “Ain’t gonna happen! In fact, it’s not even going to be the proverbial dead-cat bounce.” 

And a year earlier, Forbes contributor Aaron Kwittken speculated about Mr. Trump’s overall chances. “I think all of his recent traction is really just media hype around a cultural icon and will turn out to be a ‘dead-cat bounce’ for him — a short recovery followed by a downward trend, or spiral is what I predict in Trump’s case,” Mr. Kwittken wrote, advancing what was a widely accepted argument at that time.

In 1972, George McGovern’s miserable Democratic National Convention – when internal convention-organizing problems forced him to give his acceptance speech around 3 a.m. on East Coast time – “netted him a dead-cat bounce,” said University of Virginia analysts Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley. 

Sarah Palin was described as a dead-cat bounce candidate: She gave GOP nominee John McCain a brief shot of political adrenaline in 2008, but didn’t help him in the end. 

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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