June 27, 2006

Moderates Get Crushed

"I tried the middle of the road once... I got run down by cars going both directions."
The radical leftist UK PM Harry Perkins, in the movie "A Very British Coup".
I like to think of myself as moderate in my political views. I think a lot of people do. However, I know that I have both some immoderate views and some partisan leanings. So how moderate am I? How moderate is anyone? Are there a large body of voters waiting to be swayed one way or another, or are most voters closet partisans?

If there are a lot of moderate swing voters, then politicians should vier to the center. This may alienate some of their base, but where else can they go? The politician should pick up lots of moderates to make up for his lost partisans.

If there are few swing voters, then politicans should "play to their base" in order to energize them and maximize turnout. The politician should pick up lots of votes among the base to make up for the lost moderates.

Jonathan Rauch, in his Reason article "Where the Missing Middle Went", argues that much as he might hate it, politicians who play to their base often have an advantage over politicians who play to the center.
In 1992, the political scientist Raymond E. Wolfinger of the University of California (Berkeley), along with five of his students, published The Myth of the Independent Voter, a book that posed a challenge toŚwell, to people like me. For some time, I've been saying that the key to American politics is in the center. Independents make up about a third of the electorate, yet are neglected by the two increasingly extreme major parties. Whichever party manages to dominate the center without losing hold of its partisan base will be the majority party, possibly for years to come. Or so I've claimed.

One problem with my view is this: Party leaders aren't idiots. Why would they neglect this vast independent center if it is up for grabs? Various answers suggest themselves (for example, primary elections are dominated by fierce partisans who prefer extreme candidates), but another answer is possible. Perhaps independents are not really up for grabs.

Wolfinger and his colleagues took a closer look at independents in presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, using data from the University of Michigan's biennial American National Election Studies. Like many polls, the ANES survey asks respondents to identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, or independents; but then it goes on to ask Republicans and Democrats whether their party identification is strong or not very strong, and to ask independents whether they think of themselves as closer to the Republicans or the Democrats. It thus shows seven degrees of partisanship, instead of the usual three groups.

Mining the ANES data, Wolfinger and company found that most people who identify themselves as independents are not uncommitted swing voters. Rather, "they are largely closet Democrats and Republicans." Indeed, they vote much as weak partisans do. They may be independent identifiers, but they are mostly not independent voters.
The article includes graphs showing the partisan spread of the electorate over time (which has been pretty consistent) and how partisanship effects turnout (the more partisan you are the more likely you are to vote).

Like Rauch, I would be unhappy if most politicians became raving partizans. I think there is wisdom in the center. But only if the people in the center decide to vote. If they don't, the partisans on both sides will pull politics to the extremes. Posted by georgegmacdonald at June 27, 2006 03:00 PM