The science is in: “Moderate” voters are a myth


Crossposted from

moderate def

Vox‘s Ezra Klein covered some interesting new research involving ideological stances of average voters.

What happens, explains David Broockman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, is that surveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions. The way it works is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they’re left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle — and so they’re labeled as moderate.

“”These people look like moderates but they’re actually quite extreme””

But when you drill down into those individual answers you find a lot of opinions that are well out of the political mainstream. “A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British,” says Broockman. “A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process. You’ll often see really draconian measures towards gays and lesbians get 16 to 20 percent support. These people look like moderates but they’re actually quite extreme.”

The result is that voters who hold gentle opinions that are all on the left or the right end up looking a lot more extreme than voters who hold intense opinions that fall all over the political spectrum. Broockman offers this table as illustration:


Digging into a 134-issue survey, Broockman and coauthor Doug Ahler find that 70.1 percent of all respondents, and 71.3 percent of self-identified moderates, took at least one position outside the political mainstream. Moderates, in other words, are just as likely as anyone else to hold extreme positions: it’s just that those positions don’t all line up on the left or the right.

“these voters don’t want moderate candidates because these voters aren’t actually moderates”

For Ahler and Broockman, this solves a puzzle. They note that many states have implemented election reforms to wrest the process away from partisans and empower average voters to elect the moderate politicians they really want. These reforms include open primary elections, nonpartisan redistricting, and public funding of elections. But “the bulk of studies on these reforms finds little evidence that they improve moderate candidates’ fortunes.”

The answer, Ahler and Brookman realize, is simple: these voters don’t want moderate candidates because these voters aren’t actually moderates.

The Ahler/Broockman draft is here if you care to read it. Ahler and Broockman are, of course, wrong about public financing. Moderate Dems have actually done quite well using Clean Elections and no moderate Dem has been knocked out in a primary by a more liberal Dem using Clean Elections, at least that I’m aware of. The GOP in Arizona is simply following the national trend of their party. While it can be argued that Clean Elections hasn’t produced overall moderation it can also be argued that the lack of public financing in the vast majority of red states has certainly not quelled the radical right wing’s ascendance in those states either. There’s no evidence to implicate Clean Elections no matter how many times people who hate it repeat that canard. I also disagree that nonpartisan redistricting doesn’t help. Barack Obama got the same percentage of votes in both Arizona and South Carolina but we have 5 of 9 members of Congress who are Democrats (3 of whom are inarguably moderate) while South Carolina has 6 out of 7 Reps who are conservative Republicans. Who does redistricting does matter, very much. But yeah, open primaries is just a big old turd. They got that one right.

Those quibbles aside, the research yields a picture of voters that strongly challenges the ingrained assumption that there exists a large bloc of them who are right down the center on all issues. Nope. Your typical “moderate” voters are as apt to be strongly pro-union but pro-gun and anti-gay marriage as they are to be the other way around. And they are swing voters, but not in the way we typically think of those voters. They “swing” in the sense that they turn out in some elections while sitting out others, particularly in midterms. My hope would be that Democratic strategists and candidates in Arizona would take this fact-based information about voters and adapt their approaches to it – as in, stop chasing the mythical hordes of suburban moms who will vote Democratic if only it is explained to them umpteen million more times that the Dem candidate is “the grownup in the room” – but I’m not holding out for it since, as Broockman reminds us: “When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want”. Still, I agree with Klein that the word “moderate” itself needs to be retired.

That’s the problem with using a term that doesn’t describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. “Moderate” is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it’s become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It’s time to get rid of it.

Yeah, more accurate words would be “establishment” or “corporatist” and they describe a small number of powerful and connected people. It does not, and never has had, anything to do with what voters want.