There Is Not And Never Will Be A ‘Centrist Party’

Remember “Americans Elect”, that centrist, hedge fund billionaire-backed group that was going to ride a tsunami of centrist sentiment in 2012, compete in all 50 states and smash the two party duopoly? Well, maybe you don’t because the effort collapsed, despite spending tens of millions of hard-earned hedge fund dollars, when it couldn’t come up with a presidential candidate that generated sufficient interest even among its own members.

Well, that worked out so well that another group is forming. The creature of Dartmouth public policy professor Charlie Wheelan, the as-of-yet hypothetical “Centrist Party” aims to mobilize the teeming masses of centrist voters under the banner of Wheelan’s “Centrist Manifesto,” which calls for picking off enough Senate seats to hold the balance of power in the upper body. From there, he plans on taking over US politics and then, presumably, the world.

Why do we need it? You’ve heard it before: sure, the Republicans are bad (dogmatic, extreme, etc.) but the Democrats are an equally loutish lot. They are “too skeptical of business, too hostile toward wealth creation and overly abusive of America’s most productive citizens,” in thrall to those naughty unions and liberal interest groups, and, of course, believe government programs are the solution to every problem.


And how does he know there’s a mass base for this “a pox on both their houses” politics? Well, because there’s lot of independents out there — 39 percent in one recent poll, more than either Democrats or Republicans. He avers that these independents are “people without a party.”

Stop right there. Wheelan has just put forward the greatest myth in American politics: that independents are actually independent. As numerous studies have shown, the overwhelming majority of Americans who describe themselves as “independent” lean toward one party or the other. Call them IINOs, or Independents In Name Only. IINOs who say they lean toward the Republicans think and vote just like regular Republicans. IINOs who say they lean toward the Democrats think and vote just like regular Democrats.

Just how strong is this relationship? In 2008 (the 2012 data have not yet been released), according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Study (NES), 90 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for Obama, actually a higher level of support than among weak Democratic partisans (those who said they were “not very strong” Democrats), 84 percent of whom voted for Obama. Among Republican-leaning independents, a still-high 78 percent voted for McCain, compared to 88 percent support among weak Republican identifiers.

Evidently, these two groups are quite different animals. On the one hand, we have a group of “independents” who voted 90 percent for Barack Obama who have basically identical policy views to Democratic identifiers. On the other, we have a group of “independents” who voted 78 percent for John McCain and have policy views that look just like Republican identifiers. Clearly it does tremendous violence to the data to lump these two disparate groups together and give them a label — “independents” — that implies they do not have partisan inclinations.

Yet the “independent” group does include one sub-group whose members look and act more like swing voters. This is the so-called pure independents subgroup, those who say they do not lean toward either party. In 2008, they split their vote much more evenly between the parties — 51–41 for Obama — and they have policy views that are not closely aligned with either party. But this is a small group, and because it tends to show low information, low involvement, and relatively low turnout, it is even smaller in the context of an actual election. In 2008, according to the NES, they were just 7 percent of all voters and only 20 percent of nominally independent voters.


So that’s Wheelan’s army. I’d say his chances of taking over the Senate with this army are pretty slim, though his chances of extracting money from hedge fund billionaires are probably considerably better. You go to war with the army you have, I suppose.