Centrists Cannot Save Washington From Extremism

CREDIT:’s Flickr account
CREDIT:’s Flickr account

Now that Beltway dysfunction has reached what one can only hope is its apex, the near-immolation of the global economy in a fit of pique, you’re probably going to hear a lot of pundit chatter about an NBC/Esquire poll purporting to show a majority of Americans are centrists yearning to break free of the two-party straightjacket. “The center is up for grabs,” as Esquire’s editors put it.

This is basically nonsense.

It’s not that the poll is useless. The pollsters asked a huge sample of Americans some fairly interesting questions about, for instance, imposing tougher regulations on Wall Street (hugely popular, as it turns out) and government surveillance (not so much).

The problem, rather, is how the pollsters interpreted their data. They sorted Americans into eight “clusters” with cute names like “Pickup Populists” and “#whateverman.” 51 percent of Americans, they say, fit in the four “centrist” clusters as opposed to the two “right” and two “left” clusters. Voila! A majority of Americans are non-partisan centrists.


As you’d imagine, this doesn’t quite work. Some of the “center” clusters are dubiously centrist: “Minivan Moderates,” for instance, are social liberals who voted for Obama by a 2–1 margin. More importantly, as Alex Pareene points out, these “centrist” groups are different enough that it makes no sense at all to speak of a “centrist” bloc.

There’s another problem here. Virtually no one actually votes like a “centrist,” regardless of what they tell pollsters about their policy views.

Lots of people call themselves independents, but the vast bulk of them vote just like partisan Democrats or Republicans. This is one of the more well-established findings in modern political science, originating with a 1992 book called The Myth of the Independent Voter. The basic idea is that there are four kinds of American voters: 1) hard Democratic and Republican partisans, 2) weakly partisan registered Ds and Rs, 3) independent voters who lean towards one of the parties, and 4) “true independents” who actually swing back and forth. The third group, according to the book’s authors, voted just like the second — heavily stacked towards the party they favor.

Recent data continues to support this model. TP Ideas’ Ruy Teixeira found that, in 2008, “90 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for Obama, actually a higher level of support than among weak Democratic partisans,” while “among Republican-leaning independents, a still-high 78 percent voted for McCain, compared to 88 percent support among weak Republican identifiers.” Ruy concludes that “true” independents made up a scant 7 percent of the electorate that year.

John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and one of lead authors at The Monkey Cage, concurs. He puts together a breadth of data from the past 50 years to support this point, though for my money this chart of Obama’s approval rating in 2009 gets the point across most clearly:

Frustrated at the political class’ inability to internalize this point, Sides’ more recent follow-ups included posts titled “Independents Are Mostly Partisans, Chapter Gazillion” and “ARGH ARGH ARGH ARGH ARGH.”


So while the NBC/Esquire poll may tell us some interesting things about American policy preferences (emphasis on “may”), it definitely doesn’t tell us that there’s a vast middle pining for The Great Centrist Hope to rise up and rid Washington of the dastardly partisans. People don’t just write down their policy views and vote for whichever party checks the most boxes.

Voting is a good deal less coldly rational then that. Most Americans have poorly informed and weakly held policy opinion that shift depending on how pollsters phrase the question and what sort of information they provide. People generally line up with parties based on the particular issues they care about most deeply — abortion, for instance — or a broader, vaguer belief that one party better represents their values. Elections are principally determined by the effect of structural factors — whether it’s a presidential or off-year election, demographic trends, and the state of the economy — on the partisan makeup of the electorate.

Bottom line? There’s no reason to believe Americans are “moving towards” a unified center, one willing to punish either party’s extremism at the ballot box. We’re stuck with bad old partisanship, and all of its sour fruits.