Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?

The American center is alive and well—and up for grabs by both political parties.

It often seems there's no center in American politics anymore. Increasingly polarized camps on the right and left hold diametrically opposed, irreconcilable views on seemingly every issue.

And yet more than a third of American voters call themselves neither liberal or conservative but moderate, indicating a substantial chunk of dissenters from the left-right paradigm. Are they just confused? Are they closet ideologues with strongly partisan opinions but a distaste for labels? Are they politically disconnected? What, in short, is their deal?

The folks at Third Way, a Democratic think tank that urges moderate positions, decided to find out. They commissioned a poll of 1,500 American registered voters, asking detailed questions about a variety of issues to find out whether those who called themselves moderate were a distinct group and what sets them apart. The Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group conducted the inaugural "State of the Center" poll last month; it carries an overall margin of error of 2.5 percentage points in either direction.

What the poll found is fascinating. Moderates, according to the poll, aren't tuned-out or ill-informed, but they tend to see both sides of complex issues—for example, they want the government to do more to help the economy, but they worry that it may be ineffective or counterproductive. They see both parties as overly ideological and wish politicians would compromise more. A plurality are Democrats, but they see themselves as slightly right-of-center ideologically, and one-third say they vote equally for Democrats and Republicans. And they are surprisingly young and diverse: Self-described moderates represent a 44 percent plurality of Hispanic and nonwhite voters and a 42 percent plurality of the Millennial generation.

"Moderates wrestle with, and often reject, what they see as the false either/or ideological choices that define modern politics," Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, two Third Way officials, wrote in a memo on the poll, which was provided exclusively to The Atlantic in advance of its release Thursday. "They recognize that both sides have a piece of the truth and see flaws in the standard liberal and conservative perspectives."

The poll provides a road map for both parties as they hone their messages. For Democrats, it shows the party will have a hard time winning if it shifts to a self-consciously liberal tone: Just 38 percent of Democrats see themselves as liberal, while 37 percent call themselves moderate and another 25 percent call themselves conservative. (I've written about this dynamic before.) For Republicans, it shows that there's a group of swing voters skeptical of big government who might be open to the party's message—but only if the GOP jettisons some of its harsh rhetoric toward the underprivileged.

Source: State of the Center, Third Way and the Benenson Strategy Group, 2014

The poll finds that 40 percent of moderates consider themselves Democrats, while just 21 percent are Republicans and 39 percent are independents. (This finding jibes with the conventional wisdom of a GOP whose increasingly doctrinaire conservatism has alienated much of the middle of the electorate.) About a quarter of moderates say they always vote for Democratic candidates, and another 18 percent do so more often than not; 9 percent of moderates always vote for Republican candidates, while 12 percent vote for Republicans more often than Democrats. A solid 33 percent are swing voters who say they vote equally for Democrats and Republicans.

Moderates' perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

Source: State of the Center, Third Way and the Benenson Strategy Group, 2014

Liberals overwhelmingly (75 percent) worry government isn't involved enough in the economy, while conservatives mostly (60 percent) worry government is too involved in the economy; moderates lean toward the liberal side of the argument, with 53 percent saying not enough involvement to 40 percent who cite too much. Still, more moderates fear big government (52 percent) than big business (41 percent). Two-thirds of moderates think government often gets in the way of economic growth, and a majority (54 percent) think that if government is involved in something, it often goes wrong.

On the issues, moderates often see virtue in both sides' arguments. A huge majority (84 percent) want more background checks for gun buyers, but 58 percent say our current gun laws are "sufficient to protect me and my community." Three-quarters want to expand domestic exploration of coal, oil, and natural gas, but nearly 90 percent want to invest more in renewable energy. Seventy-six percent agree that it's immoral "to leave our children a country that is $17 trillion in debt," but 72 percent agree that "we need to increase investments in infrastructure and education rather than worrying about long-term debt."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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