Appealing To The “Center” Drives Away Voters

Reprinted under Creative Commons License from Speak Out California.

By Dave Johnson

Is there a “block” of “centrist” voters who “move” one way or the other, to Democrats or Republicans, depending on whether a candidate takes positions that are “between” the positions of those on the “left” and “right?” This is the standard model followed by many Democratic pollsters, who advise their clients to take wishy-washy positions and avoid clear progressive positions. There is reason to believe this view is fundamentally wrong, and that the metaphor of the existence of a “centrist” is affecting and constraining our ability to understand what actually happens in the voting population.

Washington Post’s The Fix looks at a Pew poll of independent voters in The misunderstood independent,

In politics, it’s often tempting to put independents somewhere in the middle of Republicans and Democrats, politically. They identify somewhere in between the two, so they must be moderates, right?A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests that’s not so true anymore. Independents, in fact, are a fast-growing and increasingly diverse group that both parties are going to need to study and understand in the years ahead.

. . . Pew identifies three different kinds of independents. Libertarians and Disaffecteds are 21 percent of registered voters and lean towards Republicans; Post-Moderns are 14 percent and lean towards Democrats.

A look at their views on issues shows those three groups can often be among the most extreme on a given topic.

Disaffecteds, for example, believe in helping the needy more than most Democrats. Libertarians side with business more than even the solidly Republican Staunch Conservatives. And Post-Moderns accept homosexuality more than most Democrats. The three independents groups are also less religious, on the whole, than either Republicans or most Democrats.

In the post I wrote here lsat year, The Elusive “Swing” Vote, I wrote about this idea of a “swing” voter, (note I should have written “few” voters switch instead of flatly saying none),

Have you heard of the “Moveable Middle?” This is the idea that there are voters on the left who will always vote on the left, and voters on the right, who will always vote on the right, and then there are voters between them who switch back and forth. They are called “swing voters.”So the idea in politics is that in order to win elections you have to take positions that appeal to these voters, and they will “switch” and vote for you instead of for the other side. This is a fundamental mistake.

Here is what is very important to understand about the “swing” vote: No voters “switch.”That is the wrong lesson. There are not voters who “swing” there are left voters and right voters in this middle segment who either show up and vote or do not show up and vote, and this causes this “swing” segment to swing.

The lesson to learn: You have to deliver for YOUR part of that swing segment or they don’t show up and vote for you. That is what makes the segment “swing.”

That post looked at polling by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee that reached conclusions similar to this more recent Pew polling.

So I’ve been saying that Dem pollsters are using the wrong model of what an independent voter is, telling the politicians that there is a “block” of independents who will vote one way or the other depending on what they hear. With this model they have to “move to the center” always staying in “between” the position of liberals and the far right, hoping to “attract” these voters away from the other side. They describe a single “center” or “independent voter” who will vote one way or another depending on whether they thing a candidate is “in between” the two poles, even when those poles have been moved very far to the right.

The PCCC and now the Pew poll show us that these “independent” voters are NOT some group that sits between the positions of the parties. They are not a block and they are not between. Democrats and especially their pollsters think of them as a block that is between, and this is why the do what they do.

Karl Rove believed that there were independents who were not registered Republican because the party was not far enough to the right for them, who would only turn out if the party gave them something to vote for. I think Karl Rove’s model is more accurate, that the independent voters are a number of groups, and very large numbers of them are MORE to the left or right than the parties,and don’t vote unless the parties appeal enough to them.

Rove decided this means the Republicans need to move ever more to the right, and this will cause those “independent” voters who had changed their affiliation out of disgust with the centrism of their party to now turn out and vote.

I think Rove nailed it. the PCCC had a poll a while back that showed this, and now see below. Dems have it exactly wrong, what they are doing turns off those independents who might have turned out to vote for them.

The problem here is the effect the metaphor of a “center” has on our thinking. Thinking about independent voters as being a “block” that is “between” the parties is the problem. It forces the brain into a constraint because of the visual image that it evokes. What I mean is that the actual language of “centrist” changes how we think. The metaphor makes us think they are “between” something called left and right. And as a result it forces certain conclusions.

The way to grow your voting base is NOT to try to “appeal” to some group that is not left or right, but is “between” something called left and right. To get more voters — especially the “independent” ones who won’t identify with a party — is to take stands, be more committed to progressive positions, and to articulate them more clearly.

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6 Responses to “Appealing To The “Center” Drives Away Voters”
  1. RL Crabb says:

    It’s interesting to speculate how a 100% progressive Democratic party would do. In 1972 the progressives worked very hard to get George McGovern as the nominee and he got thumped by one of the most reviled politicians in history. Pretty much the same contrast in ’84 with the same result.

    You could say that the voter demographic has changed since then, but I have my doubts. If anything, I would say the conservative block is much stronger than it was in those days. The Obama phenomenon was the result of a political perfect storm. If the Repubbys can keep from eating too many of their own and nominate a candidate that is vaguely human, the result could be a closer contest. If anything, I believe they are poised to re-take the Senate and hold onto the House. It’ll be the nineties all over again!

  2. Don Pelton says:

    Hi RL. It’s clever of you to reference two of the most ginormous Republican landslides in the 20th century to argue your point. Reagan came within 3000+ votes of winning all 50 states in the 1984 election.

    The trouble is, there were other factors at work that undermine the simple interpretation that those elections were pure rejections of progressivism, and you may be guilty of a bit of bad chronology.

    Robert Novak coined a phrase about McGovern that stuck like burning tar. He called McGovern the candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.” And Nixon had not yet become the most reviled politician in history. It came out that McGovern’s running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had received electroshock therapy for clinical depression. How do you weigh such quirky factors in interpreting the final election results?

    In 1984, the economy was recovering from the steep recession of 1981-1982 (“It’s the economy, stupid.”). Mondale never did make much headway against Reagan’s enormous popularity in the polls. And a large block of so-called “Reagan Democrats” would not support Mondale and saw Democrats as supporting minorities and poor against the interests of the middle class. (In other words, the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” was fully operational).

    Pundits are fond of calling the United States a “center right nation,” but that is based entirely on self-identification, not on support of policy positions. In other words, an increasing number of voters identify themselves as conservatives, and a decreasing number as liberals. But on issues such as abortion rights, tax increases for the rich, single payer health insurance, etc, vast majorities — no matter what their self-identification — support the liberal/progressive policy positions.

    Clearly we are in a period of conservative ascendancy, driven in large part by the concentration of the corporate/conservative media and by the growing influence of corporate money in politics.

    Still, there’s good evidence that candidates in recent elections tend to do better when they strongly espouse liberal/progressive positions. Gore found this out too late, but he found it out.

    Obama, a centrist Republican in everything but name, has not yet found this out, and it may be that he never will.

    In a saner, less corrupt world, the meltdown of 2008 (which is still running its course with a still uncertain outcome) should have so discredited the failed conservative project that we should all be witnessing a new “New Deal” era by now. Obama had — but squandered — the opportunity to bring that about.

  3. RL Crabb says:

    It’s not easy trying to get inside the heads of voters at any particular moment. I consider myself a centrist independent, but I surely can’t speak for independents. One thing is for sure, it’s a growing block of the electorate. I would consider myself liberal on many social issues, conservative on economic issues. I find both parties too intrusive on individual freedoms. The Tea Party claims to be neutral on social issues, but they elect some of the most repressive idealogues I’ve seen since the Spanish Inquisition. The progressives are, in my opinion, strangling us in a tangle of rules, regulation and bureaucracy that prevents innovation. (And I’m not, as some have said, a Rand libertarian. I just believe that you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to navigate city hall.)

    As for the historical precedents…well, by 1972, Nixon had bombed Cambodia, the Pentagon Papers were revealed, and the National Guard killed four kids at Kent State. Nixon got elected anyway. I’m always reminded of that New England woman who exclaimed, “How could Nixon have won? I didn’t know one person that voted for him!”

    So maybe the left can win without the center. I don’t know. Without the Blue Dogs, it’s going to be a steep climb.

  4. depelton says:

    I don’t want to get stuck in a diversion defending Nixon’s popularity, since I’m the only one I know who would still like to see Nixon dug up and put in jail where he belongs. But … the polling data show (despite Kent State, the Pentagon Papers and the bombing in Cambodia) that his polling was middling satisfactory until Watergate, when it really plummeted.

    I am curious, though, Bob, if you could give me some examples of what you mean when you say:

    “The progressives are, in my opinion, strangling us in a tangle of rules, regulation and bureaucracy that prevents innovation.”

  5. RL Crabb says:

    Michael Anderson (on Pelline’s blog) brought up the business summit at the Rood Center some time ago. I remember watching it on NCTV, and the list of grievances from local businesses was enlightening. It was quite a while back so I can’t cite every example, but there were regulations that mandated using a “government approved tape measure” at local lumberyards. The tape measure in question was so expensive that the yard could only afford one, which was hung behind the counter and shared by employees. They also produced the binder containing CA regulations, which had grown in the space of ten years to two binders with literally thousands of new rules.

    Just a few days ago, there was a story in the news about a proposed veteran’s memorial in a park-and-ride lot near Orcutt that was nixed by Cal Trans because the vet’s wanted to fly an American flag over the memorial. Cal Trans reasoning was that the flag was “an impermissable act of expression”.

    I could go on and on about my own experiences, or years of covering planning commission meetings, but it’s too exhausting. Let me just say that many of my friends have left the Golden State because they could no longer afford to do business here. And I’m not talking about cranky right-wingers, but true blue Democrats.

  6. Don Pelton says:

    I’m sure your anecdotes about friends leaving the state are quite true, but I’m not aware of any general stats that support the popular right-wing meme of a business exodus from the state.

    That’s an argument worth having, but it’s not particularly relevant to the point of the original article I posted, which is that the sought-after uncommitted “swing” voters are not politically “in the middle” but rather are more likely to be at the extremes. So the moral is that progressives (and conservatives too, I’d say!) do best when they strengthen their progressive (or conservative) message rather than dilute it in a vain effort to appeal to a “middle” that in some sense doesn’t exist.

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