Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Bell Curve, Centers of Political Gravity and The Magnet of the Middle

Ideologically Americans are like a bell curve. Most are neither far left nor far right, but in the middle, which is the center of gravity of power in presidential politics. Whenever a major party nominates a candidate far outside the mainstream of American political thought, that party loses in a landslide as did Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. Goldwater won only six states, all in the South, and McGovern won only one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. These two races left a lasting legacy on American politics, tilting the Republican Party more to the right and the Democratic Party more to the left, so that America now has three distinct centers of gravity of political power in presidential races.

Richard Nixon observed that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates must tack hard right and hard left, respectively, to win their parties’ nominations, but to win the presidency they must reverse directions and appeal to the center of the bell curve where most Americans are. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton understood this Nixonian axiom. Reagan won and governed from the center-right, and Clinton from the center-left. Magnetized by the magnet of the middle, Reagan jettisoned such positions as his opposition to the Department of Education, and Clinton worked with conservatives to pass welfare reform. In both instances ideological purists criticized them, but pragmatists applauded them. Reagan and Clinton succeeded by balancing ideological purity with political pragmatism, historically the winning combination in American politics.

To win the presidency in November Democrats and Republicans must nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates who appeal to the center. What if Republicans were to nominate Ron Paul or Democrats, John Edwards? History tells us that such nominations would be acts of political suicide. Ron Paul’s hard-core libertarian rhetoric and John Edwards’ class-warfare rhetoric appeal neither to the center of gravity in their respective parties nor to America’s center of gravity.

But do Paul and Edwards perform useful functions in American politics? Yes. They address issues and ideas that their parties may need to consider and frame in ways more palatable to the middle of the bell curve. Richard Nixon understood this in 1968 when he developed the “southern strategy” to appeal to George Wallace’s constituency on the right. George Bush I lost the presidency in 1992 when he failed to adjust to the ideas of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Bill Clinton succeeded in 1992 and 1996 by refocusing the Democratic Party from its far-left heritage, created by George McGovern in 1972, and appealing to the center of gravity of political power in America. That is, he refused to let the far left in the Democratic Party define his campaigns and presidency. Put another way candidates from the far right and far left are like seasoning on the meat and potatoes of presidential politics. The right amount of seasoning can improve the taste of the meat and potatoes, but the wrong amount can make it unpalatable.

So in the tug of war for control of the Republican and Democratic Parties, they must resist efforts to pull them too far to the right or too far to the left, respectively, knowing that in November they must appeal to the mainstream in the middle.


DDJ said...

Dear Mr. Dunn,
Based on this essay, Hilary Clinton would be the democratic front-runner. Despite her "failed Bush policy" rhetoric, she would more closely follow Bush's policies on terrorism and the war in Iraq than the other democratic candidates.
What does this political observation mean for the Republicans? It seems only Juliani or McCain would be the choices. Evangelicals make up 40% to 50% of the voters in many states. It's not likely that they would give up principle for policy in order to achieve polical expediency. If voters are true to their conscience in casting their votes, it may take four more years to get closer to their desired results, by giving America what it deserves.

Delores Jacobson
MA Public Policy 1992

DLW said...

you're associating more stability to the ideological spectrum than experience tends to demonstrate.

The center is something open to being moved, the problem is that we are too fragmented and individualistic that many of us don't have a sense of whose shoulders we stand on and are easily blown away by the winds of spin.

We need more groups spicing up our understanding of the center, so that the center can be more dynamic and not alienate as much of the rest of the population.

this is the idea behind "project democratic renewal" that I shared with the ESA recently.

Jim Davids said...

I am intrigued by your statement that "George Bush I lost the presidency in 1992 when he failed to adjust to the ideas of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot." I recall George I losing the loyalty of many conservatives when he broke his promise made at the 1988 Republican Convention ("Read my lips, no new taxes") by signing a tax hike passed in the Democrat controlled Congress. To which other ideas of Messrs. Buchanan and Perot did George I fail to adjust?