Origin of bellwether

During elections, the word ‘bellwether’ often crops up and is assigned to a state or county or other region or to this or that indicator as people decide where to focus their attentions on. Given the many factors at play, people try to identify things that have in the past been good indicators of the larger mood. Most people know the meaning of this word as signifying a leader or indicator of trends. But where does this strange word come from?

It looks like a compound word but the second part ‘wether’ has an unfamiliar spelling. In the effort to make sense of it, sometimes the word is misspelled as ‘bellweather’, perhaps in the vague belief that it arose from the wind causing a bell to toll and thus alert people that something is happening. It does not make too much sense as a metaphor but many idioms have strayed far from their origins.

But I learned recently that ‘wether’ is an actual word and is the label given to a male sheep or goat castrated before sexual maturity and that such animals would be chosen by the shepherd to have a bell attached to them and be used to lead the flock and alert the shepherd as to where the flock was heading by the sound of the bell, even if the flock was out of sight.

So there you are. The metaphor is appropriate after all.

Ohio used to be considered a bellwether state mainly because it seemed to reflect the overall population of the US. But recently it has not mirrored the general demographic trends in the US and is instead becoming older and whiter. As a result, it is predicted that soon Ohio will be a solidly red state, according to Nathaniel Swigger of Ohio State University, and in the last election, Donald Trump won Ohio comfortably.

In recent elections, Ohio has been considered a bellweather that mirrors nationwide results. For example, in 2008 and 2012 President Obama’s margin of victory in Ohio was roughly the same as his margin nationwide. The partisan balance in the electorate has made it an important, competitive swing state for decades.

The story of Ohio elections is a familiar story in American politics: Urban areas are dominated by Democrats; rural areas are dominated by Republicans. The urban-rural split in Ohio is primarily due to the concentration of Democratic blocs such as young voters and African-Americans in cities.

However, while cities like Columbus and Cincinnati are thriving, rural areas and the state as a whole are not. Demographic trends in Ohio should worry Democrats beyond 2016. Ohio ranks near the bottom in population growth and has an aging population.

While the country as a whole is becoming more diverse, this is not really true of Ohio. The state is only about 13 percent African-American and 3 percent Latino, whereas Latinos make up about 17 percent of the national population. Those numbers haven’t risen much. If the polls are accurate, the Clinton coalition will consist of young people, Latinos, African-Americans and college-educated white voters. In the state of Ohio, none of those groups are likely to grow in size in the foreseeable future.

If these trends continue, Ohio is more likely to become a dependable red state like Indiana.

I used to commiserate with my friends who lived in deep red states that were overwhelmingly populated by people who did not share their social values. It looks like very soon I am going to be one of them, though the small suburban town that I live in will likely still be progressive for some time.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    So a state that went to Obama in 2008 and 2012 and went for Trump in 2016 is getting LESS reliable as an indicator of national trends?

    There is another interpretation -- one the Democrats don’t yet seem prepared to entertain. It’s that it’s not sufficient to appeal exclusively to “the Clinton coalition […] of young people, Latinos, African-Americans and college-educated white voters”, and spend your time shrilly denouncing everyone else as a “basket of deplorables” and angrily demanding to know why you’re not fifty points ahead.

    The Springsteen coalition for 2020 needs to court all the people in Clintons list, PLUS enough “deplorables” to swing it away from the Republicans. I just hope they can find it in themselves to have that conversation.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … such animals would be chosen by the shepherd to have a bell attached to them and be used to lead the flock …

    As I (country boy but not from sheep country) understand it, shepherds would first observe which animals led the flocks on their own and give those ones the collars with the bells.

  3. Blood Knight in Sour Armor says


    There is no courting the “deplorables” (because they’re all racist, misogynist assholes), and that was made abundantly clear in this election. It’s more a case of those with no stake in the results of the political process saying that they don’t give a shit about other people because they “don’t like either candidate.

    Assholes gonna be assholes; the only hope for Dems this way forward is to turn states like Florida, NC, and Arizona blue with their current coalition. Not a likely prospect for some time… and between then and now a lot of people are gonna die.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    So, as far as you’re concerned everyone who is NOT “the Clinton coalition […] of young people, Latinos, African-Americans and college-educated white voters” are “all racist, misogynist assholes”.

    One thing certainly is abundantly clear: you, at least, have learned precisely fuck all from this election. You at least appear dimly aware that the only approach you can think of isn’t likely to work for “some time”.

  5. says

    I hope you don’t mind a bit of silliness from one of my radio pieces from many a year ago (good dog! ten actually) about something I read back then in InfoWorld:

    She expressed her concerns in a memorable, frightening phrase, and a phrase that absolutely forced me to include this particular example, “Sun’s example,” she wrote, “should be a bellwether in a rough sea…”

    … I, of course, immediately took telephone under chin, and called both the Animal Liberation Front and PETA to apprise them of the fact that InfoWorld definitely has an animal laboratory and that some pretty weird stuff is obviously going on in it in the name of testing computers. I mean—Oh, the dreadful image that “a bellwether in a rough sea” conjures up. The darkling sky stabbed with lightning; the roar of thunder; the wind whistling; the waves crashing; the spume spewing! And this little woolly head desperately trying to keep itself above water; and round its little woolly neck a big bell: and in the momentary silences of the storm a plaintive “Baa-aa, baa-aa, tinkle, tinkle, glub, glub, glub…”: (sniff) and maybe, since a bellwether is after all the lead sheep, straggling out behind it, you can just make out the waterlogged fleecy backs of the rest of the flock trying sadly to follow their leader.

    Oh! I can’t go on, it’s too horrid I…
    It’s too much even for a pessimist so…

    The Guy-on-the-throne of Damocles

  6. jrkrideau says

    @2 Pierce R. Butler
    Re bellwether
    I’d agree with you. Cattle farm, the most dominant cow got the bell. She was the leader.

    ‘a bellwether in a rough sea’

    Clearly an animal transport at sea. No need to panic. Your vivid imagination does not cover the kindly cared-for lambs on a generally quiet ocean voyage.

    And roast lamb in port! Er, sorry about that.

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