Friday, March 29, 2013

Are most "moderates" just closeted Democrats?

Michael Dukakis won self-described moderates in 1988, despite getting trounced, overall

One of the most common conclusions from 2012 exit polls and polling, in general, has been that a large number of independents are closeted Republicans.

That's based on three things -- a) The number of self-identified Republicans has shrunk considerably in the two presidential elections since 2004, b) The number of independents has grown, and c) Independents voted for Mitt Romney, and regularly hand Barack Obama bad approval numbers (he's at 43% with the group right now).

Thus, the thinking goes that  "independent" doesn't really mean "centrist" or "moderate", even though that's what people usually think of when they hear those words. Instead, it's supposed to be ruled by the ranks of disaffected Republicans.

Because of this, the thinking has morphed into this: to take the true measure of the political center, you have to look at how self-described "moderates" are voting.

Moderates are supposedly the political center these days -- the true independents.

Well, by that score, Obama cleaned up the political center by clobbering Mitt Romney, 56%-41%, among self-described moderates. That's usually presented as evidence that Republicans are losing the war for the middle.

But here's the deal -- Republicans haven't won self-described moderates at the presidential level since.... 1984!

Even more interesting? While Americans were handing George H.W. Bush over 426 electoral votes in 1988,  "moderates" still supported Michael Dukakis by a slim, 51%-49%.

It strains reason to think that someone who won over 400 electoral votes could actually lose the political center.

When Bush's son (George W.) won two presidential terms, he lost "moderates" by nearly 10% each time. Once again, it strains credibility to think that a presidential winner could lose the political middle by so much.

So that leaves us with a tentative conclusion --  self-described "moderates" include a lot of closeted Democrats just like self-described independents include a lot of Republicans.

In fact, self-described "moderates" vote in far bigger margins for Democratic presidential nominees than independents did for Romney in 2012.

Remember, self-described indies supported Obama by 8% in 2008 and Romney by just 5% in 2012, but "moderates" have been supporting the Democratic presidential nominee every cycle since 1984.

So, in reality, it seems the "moderate" designation is even more deceptive than the "independent" designation, and instead of polling a group that's made up of centrists, you're polling a group with a heavy Democratic skew.

The last Republican presidential nominee to win self-described "moderates" was Reagan in 1984

But why won't moderates just come out and call themselves Democrats?

Well, because in exit polling, "political philosophy" is different from "partisan ID."

There are generally just three categories a voter can choose under "political philosophy" -- conservative, moderate, or liberal.

Now imagine you're a moderate Democrat, and you reel at the term "liberal" as too extreme. How are you going to describe yourself when you're only given the options of "liberal," "moderate", or "conservative"?

Of course, you're going to call yourself a "moderate."

Over the past few decades, "liberal" has been (sometimes to even liberals themselves; thus the term "progressive") a more stigmatized word than "conservative."

In fact, in every presidential election since 1976, the number of self-identified "conservatives" has vastly exceeded the number of self-identified liberals. Even in 2012, which saw one of the most liberal electorates yet, 35% of voters called themselves "conservative" while only 25% called themselves liberal.

So what does all this mean?

Well, as I said earlier, people have been scoffing at the word "independent" to describe political centrists, because independents are supposedly full of closeted Republicans.

Instead, people have been turning to the word "moderate" to cast judgment on the political center. But that's just going from one slightly skewed measure of centrist preference to one much-more-skewed measure.

And it matters.


Both parties are desperate to be seen as the party that appeals to the ideological middle, because the middle is so crucial in presidential elections, and also, because both parties want to brand themselves as a safe place for centrists.

But the truth is that "moderate" seems to be even a worse reflection of the political middle than "independent". All it means is not conservative and not liberal, which leaves a massive swath of Democrats fleeing to the term "moderate."

Moderate Voting Preferences (Via The Roper Center for Elections which is the source of all exit polling in this post):

2012: Moderates = 41% of voters. Obama 56% Romney 41%.

2008: Moderates = 44% of voters. Obama 60% McCain 39%.

2004: Moderates = 46% of voters. Kerry 54% Bush 45%.

2000: Moderates = 50% of voters. Gore 53% Bush 45%.

1996: Moderates = 47% of voters. Clinton 57% Dole 33% Perot 9%.

1992: Moderates = 49% of voters. Clinton 48% Bush 31% Perot 21%.

1988: Moderates = 45% of voters. Dukakis 51% Bush 49%.

1984: Moderates = 42% of voters. Reagan 54% Mondale 46%.

1980: Moderates = 46% of voters. Reagan 49% Carter 43%.

1976: Moderates = 49% of voters. Carter 53% Ford 47%.