The Center-Right Trap

This story was written by Gary Andres.

Senator Arlen Specter's party switch last week rekindled the long-smoldering debate about the Republican party's future. For many, his high-profile defection is more evidence that the GOP is destined for a fiery demise. It's part of what Real Clear Politics writer Jay Cost describes as "the GOP is a shrinking, pathetic rump" meme that dominates the media. Consider what E.J. Dionne Jr. argued recently in the Washington Post: "Republicans' continued rightward drift is putting the party at odds with a moderate to liberal mood that pervades the country almost everywhere outside the Deep South."

Yet others, like Newsweek's Jon Meacham, maintain that America is still an ideologically "center-right" country, despite recent Democratic electoral gains. Both perspectives suffer from a common fallacy: thinking all Americans share a common ideological thought process. This view assumes all voters place the entire political world on a single, left-right spectrum and support candidates and parties closest to themselves on this hypothetical scale. They don't--or at least many do not. Instead, they view electoral choices through a less ideological prism. For them, electoral choice transcends ideology. Understanding this fact helps explain the recent Democratic surge and Republican decline in what many still describe as a center-right country.

The first piece of evidence comes from political scientist James A. Stimson. In his book Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics he reviews surveys over many years that ask voters to describe themselves as, "liberal," "moderate" or "conservative" and writes: "about a third of those asked the [ideology] question do not answer. They tell us that they don't think in those terms, that they don't know what the words mean, and they are right. So we are characterizing only two-thirds of the American public, generally those who are better educated and more involved with politics when we use these data." In other words, it's misleading to describe the country as "drifting left" or even "center-right" when about a third don't even think about politics that way.

But what about the other two-thirds? Is there evidence of a moderate-to-liberal mood drifting across the country among these citizens? Not really. The American National Election Studies (ANES) has been tracking this ideological self-placement question every election year since 1972. Here the "America is a center-right country" thesis receives some support, but the data also suggest a little drift. Between 1972 and 2004, Americans averaged 4.25 on a seven-point scale with one meaning "extremely liberal" and seven meaning "extremely conservative"--just a little to the right of the midpoint of four. Where was the average person in 2008? Just about where they've been for the past 30 years (4.24).

The 2008 ANES survey also asked Americans to rank Barack Obama, John McCain, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party on the same scale. Guess what? John McCain (4.98) was viewed as ideologically closer to the average American than Barack Obama (2.96). And the Democratic Party (3.03) was viewed as more distant from the average American than the Republican Party (5.10).

In other words, Republicans did not lose the 2008 election because they were out of step ideologically with average Americans. So it's unclear if "moving to the center" ideologically will make any difference from an electoral perspective. Thinking about political strategy only in this single left-right dimension is a trap, not because this view is wrong--it's just incomplete. Many voters don't fit this stereotype; instead they make electoral decisions based on criteria other than just ideology.

Yet many in the media still obsess over this paradigm. Why? Creating convenient shorthand to describe a complex phenomenon is part of the reason. But it also fits the way many elites think about politics and usually spells electoral problems for the GOP. Peggy Noonan wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal that the ideological positioning of the Republican party "always devolves into the question: Should it be less conservative? I say devolves because it is Democrats and the left who frame the question that way, and they do so because whatever the answer, yes or no, it will damage Republicans."

The way to victory for both parties seems pretty clear. It's about winning on the margin and realizing Americans are not homogeneous in the way they conceptualize politics. So the key is to retain and mobilize those who agree and think ideologically, and persuade enough of the rest. But who are those people? Here again Stimson has an interesting take. He calls them the "scorekeepers." He doesn't conjecture about the exact size of the group, but it's probably 20 percent of voters--clearly enough to swing any election. They don't ask if a politician's or party's views are "correct." They ask, "Will they do a good job?"

These are the voters Republicans lost in droves in the last two cycles. Thinking that winning them back means simply "moving to the center" is a prescription for more electoral failure.

Gary Andres is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
By Gary Andres
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard
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