- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Assuming he continues to excel in the primary campaign, most pundits agree Howard Dean will have to adroitly slide to the middle of the political spectrum after securing the nomination if he has any shot of occupying the White House. Mr. Dean’s own comments about attracting “white southerners in pickups” and Al Gore’s recent endorsement are early sparks in a campaign that recognizes the need to light a fire under centrist and establishment Democrats.

Yet there is another school of thought, based in part on a book written almost a half-century ago, but still helpful in understanding contemporary American politics, that predicts Mr. Dean may start left and stay left — and even do pretty well in the process. Here’s why.

The “move to the center” theory is the product of a major supposition that under-girds much of modern political analysis in this country. Beneath the cozy blanket of conventional wisdom lies the assumption that American voters are arrayed on a left-right ideological spectrum, with the median voter — and the bulk of the electorate — somewhere in the middle. Visually — according to this view — the electorate resembles a Bell Curve, or what statisticians call a “normal distribution.” Most of the voters are in the ideological center and the numbers dwindle as you move to the left or right.

With most Republicans right of center on this scale and most Democrats more to the left, this theory explains why presidential primary candidates try to win the support of their base constituencies by taking one set of positions and then moving to the middle, adopting more centrist views, after securing the nomination.

In 1957, political economist Anthony Downs published “An Economic Theory of Democracy,” the book that laid the foundation for understanding American politics in this way. Mr. Downs’ explanation of why candidates and parties converge to the center became ingrained in the psyche of political pundits and a staple in their menu of predictable offerings.

Yet while America’s political ideology may have been shaped like a Bell Curve 20 or 30 years ago, most students of contemporary politics believe the electorate has fundamentally changed over the past decade. And these changes would no doubt lead Mr. Downs to a different prediction about what Mr. Dean — or any other presidential contender — will do if he secures the nomination in today’s political environment.

Today’s political landscape is shaped more like a two-humped camel than a bell-shaped curve. Most political observers believe one of the most dominant trends in today’s political world is the collapse of the center, creating a bi-modal ideological distribution with a big chunk of voters arrayed right of center and an equal number located on the left. For the past decade, according to political scientists, the number of voters in the center of the ideological spectrum has been shrinking, while the percentage of self-identified Republican and Democrat partisans has grown, creating the new bimodal American electorate. What some commentators call the “50-50” nation is an example of this two-humped phenomenon; the marked increase in partisanship in political discourse is another.

Mr. Downs recognizes that changing the ideological distribution of voters will alter candidate behavior. Moving to the center in a two-humped electorate “would lose far more voters at the extremes than they could be gain[ed] in the center,” he says in the book.

Joe Trippi, Mr. Dean’s campaign manager, is also looking at bi-modal voting tendencies, wondering how he can take full advantage of it. Yet most American political journalists seem to have missed this possibility, still marching to the echoes of Bell Curve politics. They assume the only way Mr. Dean wins is to capture the nomination by pursuing the left-of-center Democratic base and then moderate his positions, moving to the center of the spectrum. But what if the center is not the electoral mother lode it used to be? Mr. Downs would argue he could actually lose net votes by moving to the center if he alienates core supporters and finds the middle substantially drained of voters.

So if Mr. Dean does win the nomination, maybe the move to the center assumed by so many will not happen — a victim of a bi-modal political epoch. Maybe he starts left and stays left, setting up stark ideological match up in a 50-50 nation.

Yet there is another possibility that represents bad news for Mr. Dean. The evenly divided, bi-modal electorate of 2000 may have shifted again after the events of September 11 and military successes like the capture last weekend of Saddam Hussein. The distribution of voters may still look like a camel, but the Republican “hump” may have just gotten bigger.


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