American Idol Voting Parallels American Politics

John Podhoretz has a fascinating piece on the parallel voting dynamics between “American Idol” and U.S. presidential elections. He argues that the surprise loss of Chris Daughtry to the uneven Katharine McPhee is perfectly understandable if one understands how people vote.

If you want to understand “Idol,” you need to understand American politics. And if you want to understand the workings of American politics, “Idol” isn’t a bad introduction to the way political coalitions are formed and elections are won.

After the “American Idol” field narrows to 12 finalists, the show kicks one contestant off every week – the one who gets the lowest number of votes. The number of votes seems to remain remarkably constant (this year, somewhere north of 40 million) week to week. This indicates the same people continue to vote each week. It also means that the people who voted for the contestant who was kicked off go ahead and just choose somebody new to vote for.

This is a direct parallel to the presidential primary process. In the early primaries, candidates who do poorly usually drop out of the race, leaving those who would have supported them in other states high and dry. Those supporters then have to pick somebody else among the surviving candidates to vote for. This winnowing process allows the most appealing candidates to pick up steam by adding new voters to their cadre of supporters. And as they do so, the field continues to be winnowed, until finally there are only one or two candidates left standing. The single-issue candidate, the flash-in-the-pan, the guy who has one fantastic debate – they may all have their moments, but in the end, the candidate with the most broad-based appeal will usually win.

And this is what explains Chris Daughtry’s stunning loss this week on “American Idol.” He has a distinctive voice and distinctive appeal. The problem is that he never broadened his base very much. If you liked him from the start, you stayed with him – which is why he remained solidly among the top contenders through most of the show’s run. But if you didn’t much like his sound when there were still 9 contestants remaining, you weren’t suddenly going to decide you liked his sound when there were only 4 remaining.

The key to winning “American Idol” isn’t being overwhelmingly popular in the early stages. The key is having a sound that makes it possible for you to pick up votes from people whose favorites have gotten booted off the show. Because if you don’t get those votes, somebody else is going to get them.

That is almost certainly what happened on Wednesday night. Chris Daughtry lost out to Katharine McPhee because the young female singer Paris Bennett was sent home the previous week. If you loved Paris, you probably weren’t going to move into Chris’s camp. It’s likely that the Paris voters went both to McPhee and to underdog Elliot Yamin, the sweet-sounding guy with the odd teeth who is a balladeer like Paris.

That makes perfect sense, actually.

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, Popular Culture, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Maggie says:

    Great explanation on “staying power.”

  2. Alan says:

    The analogy may be closer than you thought.

    “The day after Daughtry’s elimination from the Fox singing competition, the Internet continued to buzz with rumors and speculation that shadowy forces and/or ineptitude thwarted the bald rocker’s widely assumed ascension to the May 24 season finale.”

  3. bryan says:

    I don’t see how any comparisons can be made since there are no numbers from the american idol voting.