Moderate Voters Aren't So Moderate

This column was written by Paul Waldman.
The 2006 elections may be a year away, but already Democrats are working hard not to get cocky. With Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the multiple corruption scandals swirling around the Republicans, the ruling party is looking increasingly vulnerable. The president's approval ratings have slipped into the 30-percent neighborhood in some polls, and when people are given the "generic congressional ballot" question — do you think you'll vote for a Democrat or a Republican in next year's election? — Democrats lead by as much as 10 points, a gap that hasn't been seen since before the 1994 election. And we all remember what happened then.

Yet Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) raise a caution. Americans, they argue, are pretty conservative; no matter what is going on this week or this month, conservatives far outnumber liberals, so Democrats always start at a disadvantage. Democrats who want their party to stand up for a strong progressive agenda, they claim, are barking up the wrong tree. Democrats must stick to the center, or lose.

Even those with impeccably liberal pedigrees are making this argument, such as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. "According to the network exit polls, 21 percent of the voters who cast ballots in 2004 called themselves liberal, 34 percent said they were conservative and 45 percent called themselves moderate," Dionne wrote. "Those numbers mean that liberal-leaning Democrats are far more dependent than conservatively inclined Republicans on alliances with the political center. Democrats second-guess themselves because they have to." Meanwhile, Michael Barone of the National Journal looked at the same numbers and pronounced us to have "a conservative electorate." Evan Bayh, a probable candidate for president, cited the same figures to argue for a more centrist Democratic Party. "Do the math," he said. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic pronounced the liberal/conservative/moderate split "the most important thing you need to know about contemporary politics."

But all these observers make a mistake common to political elites: assuming that ordinary people look at politics the same way they do.

They would be right if everyone who talked to a pollster understood the words "conservative," "liberal," and "moderate" in the same way people in Washington do. Political elites tend to believe that, like them, voters understand the issues that define contemporary liberalism and conservatism, and that if they call themselves "moderates," that means they must have a clearly defined ideology that resides midway between the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties on the major issues of the day.

What flows inevitably from this misunderstanding is the notion that a political party can, through careful tweaking of its agenda, shuffle a step or two to the "center" and successfully snare enough "moderate" voters to reach a majority.

This view is embodied in what political scientists call the "median voter theory," which posits that political success belongs to the party that positions itself closest to the voter who lies in the precise middle of the ideological spectrum. But who is the actual median voter in America? At this moment in history, that voter is pro-choice, wants to increase the minimum wage, favors strong environmental protections, likes gun control, thinks corporations have too much power and that the rich get away with not paying their fair share in taxes, believes the Iraq War was a mistake, wants a foreign policy centered on diplomacy and strong alliances, and favors civil unions for gays and lesbians. Yet despite all this, those voters identify themselves as "moderate."

In fact, the people who call themselves "moderates" aren't midway between the two parties. When you examine them as a group, you find that they look much more like liberals than conservatives. In every presidential election since 1988, the Democratic candidate has won more votes among moderates than the Republican candidate. According to National Election Studies (NES), 56 percent of moderates in 2004 associated themselves with the Democratic Party, while only 31 percent leaned Republican.

And it isn't just party identification; on issue after issue, moderates have opinions almost exactly mirroring those of liberals. In the NES survey, 64 percent of liberals say we should increase spending on Social Security, as do 68 percent of moderates — while only 47 percent of conservatives agree. Eighty-eight percent of liberals and 84 percent of moderates say federal funding on education should be increased, compared to only 58 percent of conservatives. Seventy-three percent of liberals and 66 percent of moderates want more spending for child care — but only 38 percent of conservatives agree. Sixty-two percent of liberals and 57 percent of moderates want to spend more on aid to the poor, compared to only 39 percent of conservatives.