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 demonstrated 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 that of 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.”

On immigration and national security, however, moderates are mostly on one side of the issue: 86 percent of moderates see undocumented immigrants as hardworking people trying to care for their families, and a slim majority disagree with the idea that giving them citizenship would “reward bad behavior”—50 percent to 47 percent. Meanwhile 72 percent worry about the government going too far in monitoring phone and internet usage, and a majority say they are not worried we’re not doing enough to stop the next terror attack on U.S. soil.

On issues of poverty and opportunity, moderates worry about structural obstacles to the American dream, but they don’t see themselves as victims. Just 28 percent of moderates agree that discrimination against racial minorities is a thing of the past, compared to 18 percent of liberals and 43 percent of conservatives. Four in 10 moderates think people are poor primarily because they’ve made bad choices; a quarter of liberals believe this, while 60 percent of conservatives do.

Majorities of moderates believe government should play a role in creating equal opportunity and that a strong safety net is important even if “a few lazy people game the system,” but moderates also largely believe the government has created incentives for poor people not to work. Most interesting, even as they see society as unequal, seven in 10 moderates disagree with the idea that “the deck is stacked against people like me.” In fact, it was conservatives who were most likely to see themselves as victims: 35 percent said the deck was stacked against them, versus 28 percent of liberals and moderates.

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

Moderates see both parties as overly ideological—they say Democrats are too liberal and Republicans too conservative—and they are distressed by the harsh nature of modern political discourse, more likely than liberals or conservatives to say they avoid political conversations because they’re too divisive. But they aren’t disengaged: Only 35 percent say they tune out politics, about the same as liberals and conservatives.

The Third Way researchers are what might be termed partisans of moderation—the importance of moderates in politics is their raison d’être, and they have an obvious interest in reinforcing that notion. But this poll provides compelling evidence that they’re correct. There is indeed a major segment of the electorate that doesn’t belong firmly to either ideological camp, and it is distinct in its ideas and sympathies from either liberals or conservatives. Democrats’ success in recent national elections can be attributed to their arguments’ generally greater resonance with voters in the middle. But Republicans could win them back with a more centrist message—and Democrats could lose them if they stray too far to the left.