If you want to understand why President Barack Obama and opposition Republicans are acting the way they are, a new study provides some clues. Bottom line: Democrats need huge numbers of moderates to win national elections, while Republicans can rely a lot more on their conservative base.
Moderates are "the true presidential kingmakers," political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck write in their study for the centrist Democratic think tank, Third Way. Since 1980, the pair say, no Democrat has been elected president without winning at least 60 percent of the moderate vote, accounting for at least half their total vote.
Republicans can rely more on conservatives because there are more conservatives in the electorate – an average of 33 percent in the past 30 years, as opposed to 20 percent self-described liberals. Yet the biggest share of voters by far is the 47 percent who call themselves moderates.
Using years of data from Gallup, Pew and other polling outfits, Kamarck and Galston found that moderates are akin to liberals on issues such as abortion and gay rights. But as a group they are more skeptical about the size and reach of government and more likely to believe it is not the government's job to reduce the income gap between rich and poor. They are also much more likely than liberals to favor tax cuts over public investments as a way to strengthen the economy, and they are more interested than liberals in reducing the deficit.
One of the most interesting points the authors make is that moderates and independents, often lumped together, are quite different. Most independents – 75 percent – lean toward one party or the other, and overall, the group has a "conservative tilt," Galston and Kamarck found.
The ideology gap between moderates and independents is clear at the White House level. Moderates delivered more than half their votes to Democrats in six out of the last nine presidential elections. Independents did so just once, in 2008 for Obama.
The findings illuminate the political logic behind some recent moves on both sides. Obama has signed a tax-cut bill, proposed a five-year freeze on some domestic spending and reached out to the business community. Republicans are trying to cut off federal money to public broadcasting, the arts and Planned Parenthood and (in Wisconsin) are trying to throw out most collective bargaining rights for unionized public employees.
Galston and Kamarck say the impact of moderates is muted in the political process, to the detriment of Democrats. They suggest that congressional districts be drawn by non-partisan commissions and that primaries be more open, ideally non-partisan with the top two finishers competing in the general election.
The pair also said they'd be open to primaries on a single day, to make them a more attention-grabbing event. Galston, asked about compulsory voting, said he'd like to see a few states experiment with treating voting like jury duty -- compulsory, and you pay a fine if you don't show up.
Jamelle Bouie, blogging at the liberal American Prospect, said the argument that moderates don't have enough influence ignores the content of legislation in the last two years. Citing the Affordable Care Act, which became less liberal as it moved through Congress, Bouie argued that "partisans are disadvantaged in the governing process."
That may apply more to liberals than conservatives. Partisan Republicans do not seem particularly disadvantaged these days -- House and Senate Republicans are for the most part doing their bidding. That may be because, as the numbers show, there is little downside for GOP leaders to stoke their base. By contrast, Obama and Democrats must show caution toward their liberal base or risk alienating the moderates who are vital to their coalition.
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