Here we go again. Newspapers and the media in general are supposed to be capable of using language in a sensible manner. But they don't, as this headline in the Washington Post shows.
This is the actual reference:
We've had some primary elections and soon we'll have real elections. In the run-up to these elections we'll hear the results of little phony elections that candidates, parties and news organizations like to hold so they can pretend to predict the future. These phony elections are called polls and their results cause millions to be spent or withheld in individual races and provide endless fodder for commentators and pundits that analyze the supposed preferences of likely (maybe) voters and provide reasons why one candidate is sizzling and another flaming out. However, if the polls reveal that two candidates for a post have nearly the same potential support at the polls, those two are said to be in a "dead heat".
A dead heat is a term from horse racing. It describes a race result where two or more horses have reached the finish wire at exactly the same instant. It doesn't have to be for first place. There are dead heats for second or third or other placings as well. In modern racing cameras are used to determine the placing of runners and the occurrence of a dead heat. The term is never used to describe the placing of the runners at any time during the race. While the race is being run, the horses could be neck and neck, or side by side or together but there is no dead heat until the race is completed. For this reason the use of the term "dead heat" in the typical political context is erroneous and stupid.