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The "Mythical Moderate"

It's a longstanding tradition in American politics that presidential candidates spend most of the primary season trying to appeal to the party's base, liberal or conservative. Then the nominees of both parties try to do an about face and present themselves as the more moderate and reasonable candidate for the general election. The thinking behind this strategy is that primary voters tend to be extremist, but most voters hew to the center. But journalist Ezra Klein, in an article for Vox, makes a startling annoucement: "Moderates are largely a statistical myth." Klein explains:

What happens, explains David Broockman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, is that surveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions. The way it works is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they're left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle — and so they're labeled as moderate.

Broockman bases this view on the results of a 40-question survey he conducted with Ph. D. student Doug Ahler, covering 12 distinct political issues, and completed by 515 respondents.

To analyze the results of their survey, Broockman and Ahler created a seven-point scale. A score of one on any issue means the respondent took the most extremely liberal position--further left than the average Congressional Democrat. A score of seven was the most extremely conservative position--further to the right than the average Congressional Republican. What the surveyors discovered was that most people did have aggregate scores that placed them in the middle of the range. But they also found that the vast majority of respondents had at least one issue where their view was classified as extreme.

Broockman and Ahler concluded, based on their research, that both self-described conservatives and self-described liberals were more ideologically consistent than self-described moderates. They give one example of a legislator who scored a consistent 5, a "moderately conservative" position, on both gay marriage and immigration, and a voter who scored extremely conservative on gay marriage but extremely liberal on immigration. Based on these two scores, the voter would be classified as "moderate" while the legislator would be "conservative"--but, the researchers argue, the legislator is actually closer to the mainstream. They elaborate:

But this voter is not really ideologically moderate, she is ideologically mixed; and the legislator is not ideologically extreme, he is ideologically consistent. Interpreting ideological scales as measuring views on issues themselves rather than ideological consistency can thus mislead even simple descriptions of individual’s policy preferences.

In summary, liberals and conservatives both take their positions from their ideologies, while moderates treat each issue independently. This research is nothing new. This is Philip Tetlock's hedgehogs and foxes all over again. But before we agree with Ezra Klein that the moderate voter is a myth after all, we might recall that Tetlock reached a very different conclusion. Then again, Tetlock asked a different question. While Broockman and Ahler's study sought to uncover who was most consistent, Tetlock's study looked for who was most informed.

Given those choices, I'll take an informed moderate over a consistent ideologue any day.

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