The Spectacle Blog

The End of the Bell Curve Theory of Politics

By on 11.5.08 | 4:16PM

Back when I was a student of political science, we spent a lot of time discussing the bell curve theory of American politics.  The idea was simple.  Americans are supposedly arrayed along an ideological spectrum.  The vast majority of voters are in the center, while small numbers lurk out at the edges.  So, the theory goes, the winning party will be the one that finds a candidate to plausibly occupy the center position.

I think that theory is out the window.

There is no way rational voters could have looked at the choice offered by John McCain and Barack Obama and concluded that Barack was closer to the ideological center than McCain.  Obama had no record of cooperation with Republicans.  McCain has passed major legislative packages with Democrats.  Obama has never broken with his party other than to go left of his party.  McCain has regularly broken with his party to move in with centrist coalitions.

Yet, McCain was beaten soundly.

I suspect that voters are not really rational centrists.

I think voters are highly emotional and I think they are often looking for a narrative they can understand.  Barack Obama appealed to both of those things.  Disgust with Bush as the author of a long, expensive Iraq adventure that even if effective, feels like castor oil going down.  Anger at the economic problems that seem to have no bottom of late.  And the narrative, of course, is the candidate of hope.  The one who can bring us together, heal wounds, and importantly, who is not a Republican like George W. Bush.

Goodbye bell curve.  May political consultants and party bosses everywhere cut you loose.

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