Centrist Democratic think Tank Third Way, the successor of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council whose ideas fueled Bill Clinton’s two terms, unveiled its inaugural State of the Center survey this week. The survey will run monthly and the results averaged for each year. In this way the think tank hopes to establish that while Congress remains gridlocked and few members find middle ground the American public can and is centrist in ideology.
Some notable findings of the survey can be found here (summed up nicely by Molly Ball at the Atlantic). More importantly for the parties are several key findings I will report below. Republicans often lose moderate voters by around 10-15% in national and statewide elections. Since many GOP voters identify as conservative and conservatives make up a bigger share of the electorate than moderates or liberals the party can often make up the difference.
1. Among those who identified as Democratic only 38% call themselves liberal, 37% moderate and 25% conservative.
2. 40% of moderates in the survey identified as Democrats, 21% Republican and 39% Independent.
3. Among all moderates, 33% say they vote equally for Republican and Democratic candidates.
4. Only 23% of moderates favor a bigger government that provides more services while 37% favor a smaller government with fewer services.
5. 53% of moderates say government is not involved enough in the economy to 40 percent who cite it is. 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.
6. A plurality of moderates believe a strong safety net is needed but that the government creates incentives for poor people not to work.
The above points are just a snapshot of the survey’s findings. Moderates tend to see both sides of issues. For example, 84% favor background checks on guns but 58% say current gun laws are sufficient. Huge majorities of moderates favor expansion of domestic oil exploration (75%) and investing in renewable fuels (90%). Moderates also show pragmatism on social and cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
The survey’s findings indicate several lessons both parties should heed. For Democrats looking for standard-bearer after the age of Obama, the safe bet is Hillary Clinton. While the vast majority of liberals identify as Democrat they are not a majority of the party. Rather, moderates and conservatives continue to make up a sizable chunk of the party and nominating a firebrand like Warren or O’Malley has the potential to split the party and open a rift for the eventual GOP nominee to exploit.
Republicans can take heart from this survey. Despite the party’s rightward tilt (over-documented by the media), many moderates do agree the government is to big or at least ineffective. Instead of arguing government should be shrunk at all costs Republicans should focus on a reform orientated agenda that fixes failing agencies such as the VA and Education. GOP rhetoric towards the poor and disadvantaged, particularly minorities, should focus less on their work ethic and the benefits they accrue and more towards how to get these people working.
Republicans may be handicapped by the politically conservative nature of their base. Unlike Democrats who have a mix of voters with differing ideologies, 72% of Republicans identify as conservative compared to 26% as moderate and a mere 2% as liberals. The values of conservatives on shrinking government and involvement in the economy contrast sharply with moderates suggesting Republicans will need to be careful how they balance the views of moderates and their base.
In contrast to numerous surveys showing many Independents are closet conservative, disaffected Republicans, a whopping 48% identify as moderate, 18% liberal and 34% conservative. This suggests both parties should continue to invest in winning Independents and understand this voting group may not be as full of closet partisans as initially assumed.
Both parties should learn from the survey. Democrats, eager to hold onto the White House should not turn to the populist left to keep their streak alive. Republicans, should ditch their fiery rhetoric and focus on a pro-growth, pro-reform agenda that lifts all boats. If this survey is true the middle is truly alive and well and both Republicans and Democrats will need their support to control government in 2014 and beyond.