Speaking of Moderates and Independents…

More on self-identification and partisan ID.

The discussion on my previous post on partisan identification led to an interesting discussion of self-described “moderates” and “independents.” A great piece that fleshes out what this all means is by Lee Drutman at 538 back in 2019: The Moderate Middle Is A Myth, that I don’t think I ever blogged about.

The intro sets the stage quite well:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Independent voters will decide the election. Or better yet: Moderate voters will decide the election. Or, wait for it … If Democrats can move to the middle, they will win in 2020.

These tropes conjure up a particular image: a pivotal bloc of reasonable “independent” voters sick of the two major parties, just waiting for a centrist candidate to embrace a “moderate” policy vision. And there’s a reason this perception exits: You see just that if you look only at topline polling numbers, which show 40-plus percent of voters refusing to identify with a party, or close to 40 percent of voters calling themselves moderates.1But topline polling numbers mask an underlying diversity of political thought that is far more complicated.

Moderate, independent and undecided voters are not the same, and none of these groups are reliably centrist. They are ideologically diverse, so there is no simple policy solution that will appeal to all of them.

I won’t do a blow-by-blow of the piece, which is worth reading in full. What I will note, however, are some specifics that were directly relevant to some of our conversation earlier.

For example, self-described “independents” are all over the place ideologically.

I used policy questions from the same Voter Study Group survey to make two indexes5 measuring attitudes on economic policy and immigration. I chose these two issues because they are perhaps the two most central in national politics, and they represent competing dimensions of political conflict — few voters hold consistently middle-of-the-road opinions on both issues. The indexes range from -1 (far left) to +1 (far right).6

What about “moderates”

But many people who call themselves “moderate” do not rate as moderate on policy issues. Just like self-identified independents, moderates come from all over the ideological space, including moderates who also identify as independent.

Indeed, one may note that “moderates” concentrate more in the lower left porton of the graph that do independents who are a bit more widely scattered.

unlike independents, moderates are more likely to be Democrats. The average moderate in the Voter Study Group data is solidly center-left on both economic and immigration issues. This, I think, has mostly to do with linguistic history: Republicans have long embraced the “conservative” label, but for decades Democrats ran away from the “liberal” label, leaving “moderate” as the only self-identification refuge for many Democrats. (Only recently has “liberal” again become a fashionable identification for the left.)

Drutman concludes about this group:

As the political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe put it, after looking at five decades of public opinion research, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.”8 Similarly, political scientist David Broockman has also written about the meaninglessness of the “moderate” label, particularly as a predictor of centrism.

The takeaway is simple: As they must with independents, any pundit who talks about “moderates” as a key voting bloc begs that second follow-up question: Which moderates?9

The piece also discusses self-identified “undecideds” but I will leave that off from this post (click over if interested).

He does note, to my point in the discussion thread in the other post:

Anybody who claims to have the winning formula for winning moderate, independent or undecided voters is making things up. Perhaps more centrist policies will appeal to some voters in each of these categories — but so will more extreme policies.

Indeed.

At any rate, a bit more grist for the mill.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Political Parties, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    Anybody who claims to have the winning formula for winning moderate, independent or undecided voters is making things up. Perhaps more centrist policies will appeal to some voters in each of these categories — but so will more extreme policies.

    Sure, Bernie Sanders is an “independent” as an obvious example.

    But I think this is both right and wrong. Fundamentally, whatever their actual beliefs, both parties need self-identified “moderates,” “centrists,” and “independents” to vote for their candidates to win elections. There is no avoiding that – the core supporters of each party are minorities.

    So the major problem here is not voters or their views and preferences, but the poor wishy-washy descriptions we use for them. And I think that is driven by the binary nature of our politics – either you are solidly around one pole or the other, or you are not, and if you are not then what do you call yourself except for a moderate/centrist/independent?

    And this also doesn’t account for cross-over like someone who is strongly pro-abortion and pro-gun rights. What label are they supposed to use to describe themselves if those are a person’s two most salient issues?

    And then there are weirdos like me who have a lot of preferences that neither party supports. I still don’t know what to call myself politically. Independent seems the closest in terms of actual word meaning but it’s far from adequate.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    So the major problem here is not voters or their views and preferences, but the poor wishy-washy descriptions we use for them. And I think that is driven by the binary nature of our politics – either you are solidly around one pole or the other

    I think this is the crux of the problem. There is very, very little “one pole or another” in either party. If there is anything that qualifies in 2022, I would say Republicans have consistently trumpeted policies that favor the already wealthy for the past 25 to 30 years. And Democrats have consistently tried to end discrimination for a wide variety of minority groups. Other than that, there are no consistent poles in either party.

    Well, that’s no longer true. The Republicans used to have leaders who were pro-environment or pro-public lands, so maybe in there case it is accurate to call them polarized. They are for the wealth and against anything they perceive as Democrats being in favor of. Full stop. Every time.

    So, let me challenge you. What is these “one pole or the other” positions that you are talking about? What is it that Democrats are so unified on that there is no daylight between them?

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    I fear much of my reaction to both this post and the preceding post is that Dems are really, really poor at messaging. As clarified by Drutman’s charts, there are a lot of people who are basically liberal and should be Democrats, but don’t either realize it or want to admit to it.

  4. @Andy: I have not problem at all for individuals to call themselves “independents.” What is problematic is when people want to pretend like aggregated independents can be a coherent proto-party.

    @gVOR08: But part of the point is that most of those people are, in fact, voting Democratic regardless of how they self-identify.

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  5. Jen says:

    I’m registered as undecided here in NH, despite overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. That’s because I hold a non-partisan elected position in town.

    I’m quite certain there are myriad reasons why people say they are independent. My father was covered by the Hatch Act for most of his career and I think it’s conditioning for him to say he’s independent, because he always votes for Republicans. He’s also out in Arizona where some of the Republicans are quite frankly a bit loony, so he’s not going to identify along with that crowd.

    It’s a massive mistake to assume that everyone is in some magic middle.

  6. Kingdaddy says:

    There are two mythologies at work here.

    The first is that there is some inherently greater reasonableness in being more “centrist” or “independent.” Oh, those people on the left and the right, they’re so wrapped up in their ideology, they’ll never see common sense. Pragmatism and reality will always be in the middle.

    The second is that, in the patronizing words of Kinder and Kalmoe, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.” No, it’s just a way of describing that many people are complex in their political opinions, not going along with every tenet of presumed orthodoxies on the left or right. I believe that government regulation is necessary, but the collective accumulation of regulations in some areas is a hindrance to entrepreneurship. I believe that the United States has been a stumbling colossus often as a superpower, but I also believe that American power, hard and soft, is generally a force for good in the world. I believe that government action against systemic inequality is necessary, but often that leads to bad, unintended consequences. What does that make me, exactly? Others may have a different mix of political conclusions and preferences.

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  7. @Kingdaddy: FWIW, I should have noted that I did not like the definition, although I did quote it. I just think it is a huge residual category that is quite broad in its definition.

    And agreed on the mythology issue.

  8. Andy says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    Pragmatism and reality will always be in the middle.

    Pragmatic probably comes the closest to describing my very general views on politics.