Political moderates are having their moment

The U.S. Capitol in shadow with a dramatic red sunset behind it.
As the main political parties fight in the midterms for control of Congress, Democrats’ improved fortunes since the Roe vs. Wade reversal shows that angering moderates is a good way to lose elections.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Moderates have lately been out of fashion in American politics.

On the right, conservative Republicans scorn their party’s moderate wing as RINOs — Republicans in name only. On the left, progressive Democrats spent much of the last year and a half yelling at their party’s moderates, most notably Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as they blocked some of the party’s priority bills and whittled others down.

In both parties, activists have pushed the idea that the path to victory lies in mobilizing committed partisans — the party base — not trying to persuade often-elusive swing voters.

But fickle fashion fades, and the moderate moment may have come ‘round again.

Democrats’ fortunes have improved significantly in the two months since the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe vs. Wade. Several factors are at play in that shift — declining gasoline prices, Democrats’ success in enacting parts of their agenda, as well as the abortion issue. But if Democrats hold on to a majority in the Senate — as many election analysts now forecast — the Republican failure likely will stand as a lesson in the risks of alienating moderate voters.

A moderate public

Judging by the makeup of Congress, a person might think that the center had disappeared from American politics.

Display the ideologies of members of Congress visually, and you get something that resembles two mountain peaks with a deep valley in between — one cluster on the left containing nearly all the elected Democrats and another on the right including nearly all the Republicans. Even the few outliers from each party do not overlap — the most centrist Republicans, people like Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have records that put them to the right of Manchin, Sinema or other centrist Democrats.


That didn’t used to be the case. Go back a generation, and Congress included a large number of conservative Democrats and a few liberal Republicans whose voting records overlapped with one another and who sometimes served as bridges between the parties.

What once was the case among elected officials remains the norm among the public at large, notes UCLA political scientist Chris Tausanovitch.

“In the world of elected officials, there’s a break” — an empty spot separating left from right, Tausanovitch said. “In the public, there’s no break. Instead, the most common place to be is in the middle.”

Tausanovitch is among a group of political scientists who recently published a study that makes clear how important moderates are in American politics.

About 4 in 10 Americans identify themselves as moderate, a share that’s been pretty consistent over the last 30 years, according to Gallup’s annual surveys. (The share that identifies as conservative is just a bit smaller and has declined a bit in recent years, and about 1 in 4 identify as liberal, a number that has grown a bit).

But what makes those moderate voters tick has been much debated. One school of thought is that many people who define themselves as moderate simply don’t pay much attention to politics and hold few if any consistent views on issues. Another says that the center consists heavily of people who hold a grab bag of conflicting positions — liberal on some points, conservative on others — which make them hard to characterize or appeal to politically.

In other words, are moderates people who “just have no idea of what’s going on, or do they have extremely idiosyncratic views” that just don’t fit, said UC San Diego political scientist Seth Hill, another of the study’s authors.

The research showed that neither of those answers is correct for most moderates. Only a small group, about 6% of Americans, give answers on surveys that appear to be almost random. A larger group has strongly held conservative views on some issues and liberal ones on others, but it’s still only about 20% of the population.


The rest, about three-quarters of U.S. adults, hold views that can be arrayed pretty consistently along a left-to-right spectrum. And most people cluster in the middle.

Although the moderates don’t engage in politics as intensively as more partisan voters, they have a strong ability to sway elections. They’re heavily represented among voters who shifted from one side to the other between the 2012 and 2016 elections, for example.

“Political discourse has shifted toward mobilizing the base,” Tausanovitch said. But “there’s a real basis for thinking that catering to the middle of the spectrum matters.”

Of course, for a lot of members of Congress, swing voters don’t matter. If you’re a member of the House from an overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic district or state, there’s little chance of losing a general election. Instead, your main political worry will be your party’s primary, and your chief goal will be to avoid upsetting committed partisans.

The combination of gerrymandered districts and partisan primaries contributes heavily to that gap where the congressional center used to be.

But neither party has enough safe seats to form a majority. Getting to 218 votes in the House or 50 in the Senate means winning over moderate voters in swing states and districts.

As the new research highlights, a lot of those swing voters are what Hill calls “ambivalent centrists” — voters who are “confronted by two party coalitions that each express views that are more extreme on some issues than the moderates would prefer.”

“That’s what generates a lot of the uncertainty” in close U.S. elections, he added.

The last couple of months have provided an object lesson in how that uncertainty plays out.

A large majority of Americans opposed overturning Roe vs. Wade, and in the weeks since the court took that step, the opposition has grown. Even larger majorities of Americans oppose total bans on abortion, which have been adopted by nine states, or bans that take effect very early in a pregnancy, which are now the law in five states.

In the weeks since the Roe reversal, abortion has grown in importance as an issue for voters. A new Marist College poll done for NPR and the “PBS NewsHour” found that 22% of registered voters said abortion was the top-of-mind issue for them as they think about the midterm election, rivaling inflation, at 30%.

And although voters who identified as political independents — a group that’s not quite the same as political moderates, but overlaps a lot with them — listed inflation as their top concern, with 58% of them saying they were more likely to vote because of the high court’s abortion decision. The poll also found Democrats holding a lead, 48% to 44%, when voters were asked which party’s candidates they were more likely to vote for this year — a mirror image of the 47%-44%% lead Republicans held in April, before news first leaked that the court was likely to overturn Roe.

Some of the improvement in Democrats’ standing comes from progressive voters who were newly energized by the abortion issue, but a large share appears to come from swing voters.

“In the spring, when the dominant issue was inflation, it was pretty clear what their choice would be,” Hill said, referring to those ambivalent centrists. Now, with abortion surging as an issue, “we just don’t know.”

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USC scandals take center stage in mayoral race

During the last decade, two influential Los Angeles politicians were awarded full-tuition scholarships valued at nearly $100,000 each from USC’s social work program. As Matt Hamilton reported, one of those scholarships led to the indictment of former L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the former dean of USC’s social work program, Marilyn Flynn, on bribery and fraud charges. The other scholarship recipient, Rep. Karen Bass, is the leading contender to be L.A.’s next mayor. Federal prosecutors have made no indication that Bass is under a criminal investigation. But prosecutors have now declared that Bass’ scholarship and her dealings with USC are “critical” to their bribery case and to their broader portrayal of corruption in the university’s social work program, and that has thrust her relationship with USC onto center stage of an increasingly bitter campaign.

Bass has responded with ads attacking her rival, Rick Caruso, for allegedly failing to properly handle sex scandals at USC when he was on the board of trustees.

The latest from the campaign trail

— When Dr. Mehmet Oz announced last fall that he would run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in Pennsylvania, he had a built-in advantage most first-time candidates don’t: fame. But, as Jasper Goodman reports, since Oz narrowly won the state’s GOP primary in May, his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has sought to turn Oz’s celebrity into a liability. Polls indicate that Fetterman has made significant progress.

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The latest from Washington

— The Department of Justice told a federal judge on Thursday that it intends to appeal her decision that would allow a special master to review documents seized by the FBI from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, Sarah Wire reported. U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon had ruled in favor of Trump’s request for a special master and said that officials had to temporarily stop using the records for investigative purposes. In a separate filing asking Cannon to stay part of her decision, the Justice Department said it will appeal if Cannon does not modify her order by Thursday.

— At least 300 documents containing classified information left the White House with Trump, an unprecedented situation that has led to the FBI investigating possible violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice. As Wire reported, the details of the documents’ removal and haphazard storage have left the intelligence community reeling and the public asking: “How could it happen?”

President Biden welcomed former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama back to their former home for a ceremony to unveil their official portraits that was in many ways a lighthearted, happy reunion. But, as Eli Stokols reported, after Biden and Obama spoke, trading the usual self-deprecating jokes and praise, the former first lady stepped to the lectern in the East Room and delivered a stirring reflection on the ceremony’s meaning and the state of a country in turmoil.

— A bipartisan group of senators pushing legislation designed to prevent a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol say a vote on the package isn’t likely until after election day, Nolan McCaskill reported. The group has proposed two bills. One would update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify procedures for tallying electoral votes. It would clarify that the vice president has no authority to accept or reject electors and make it harder for lawmakers to object to an elector or slate of electors. The other bill would double the maximum penalty under federal law to two years in prison for anyone who threatens or intimidates election officials, poll workers, voters or candidates.

The latest from California

— California farmworkers may struggle with clout in our state Capitol, but they definitely have friends in higher places. Those include Biden, who, as Anita Chabria wrote, is done being the ice-cream-eating nice guy — and is letting his antagonists know it, whether they are MAGA Republicans or wayward California governors. For months, Gov. Gavin Newsom has been calling out fellow Democrats for not being tough enough on “Make America Great Again” Republicans. This week, Biden responded in kind by issuing a Labor Day statement of support for a bill backed by the United Farmworkers Union that Newsom has indicated he plans to veto.

— The level of animosity, violent threats and fly-off-the-handle behavior at public meetings has hit remarkable heights since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Barabak wrote. The venom has been enough to prompt a new state law that spells out just how and when bullies, bad actors and dangerous belligerents can be ejected so that school boards, city councils and other local government entities can do their work.

— Wondering what’s up for a vote this year in California? Seema Mehta has answers to your ballot questions.

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