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Moving to the center to get votes

- May 8, 2009

Jim linked to an article by Gary Andres, who gave some statistics supporting the finding that Americans tend to call themselves “conservative” rather than “liberal. According to Andres, on the NES 7-point scale from 1=extremely liberal to 7=extremely conservative, the average self-assessment was 4.25, compared to an average estimate of 3.0 for Obama and teh Democratic Party and 5.0 or 5.1 for McCain and the Republican Party. Given that the Democrats won handily in 2006 and 2008, Andres claims, reasonably enough, that “Republicans did not lose the 2008 election because they were out of step ideologically with average Americans.” He then goes on to write about swing voters:

probably 20 percent of voters–clearly enough to swing any election. They don’t ask if a politician’s or party’s views are “correct.” They ask, “Will they do a good job?”

These are the voters Republicans lost in droves in the last two cycles. Thinking that winning them back means simply “moving to the center” is a prescription for more electoral failure.

I agree with some but not all of this. To break it into pieces:

1. Given that no presidential candidate has won more than about 60% of the vote in a long time, yes, it seems reasonable to characterize 20% of the electorate as swing voters.

2. Political science has a standard view, to which I subscribe, is that voters care about ideology and also about whether a politician or party will do a good job. The point is that the ideology is already accounted for. In a simple but not unreasonable model, voters are aligned in some distribution from left to right (or maybe in multiple dimensions), and news about the economy and information about the candidates shifts people’s views about the parties. “Willl they do a good job” is important, and presumably a big reason why McCain, as successor to George W. Bush, lost.

3. I agree with Andres that “moving to the center” by itself is unlikely to win any elections. But . . . the evidence I’ve seen is that moving to the center could help!

Here’s the story.

After 2004, I heard the claim that Kerry lost because he was trying to be too moderate on economic policy, that had he only moved more forcefully to the left, he could’ve won the election. I was skeptical–after all, I knew from survey reports that, on most issues, the average voter stands between the Democratic and Republican parties, so I’d expect that the Democrats could in general gain by moving right, and the Republicans could gain by moving left, in both cases toward the center of the distribution of voters. (I’d say “the median voter,” but this technical term implies a level of precision that doesn’t really exist when evaluating issue opinions.)

On the other hand, it’s true that, in recent years, the Democrats have had an edge on economic issues, and so maybe it actually would benefit them to move to the left–not to get closer to the voters so much as to more clearly distinguish themselves from the competition.

Jeff Cai and I analyzed the 2004 National Election Study and estimated that it would’ve been electorally optimal for Kerry to move slightly to the right on economic and social policy and for Bush to move sightly to the left on social policy and a lot to the left on economics. Below are our estimates: Positions on the economy and on social issues are measured on a -9 to 9 scale, and a -8 to 8 scale, respectively, so shifts of up to 3 points to the left or right are pretty large (see the scatterplot above to get a sense of where the voters stand, and how they rate the candidates). For all shifts, the graphs show the estimated change in Bush’s share of the vote.

1d_small.png

Based on this model, Kerry should’ve shifted slightly to the right in both dimensions, Bush should’ve shifted slightly to the left on social issues and a great deal to the left on economic issues. (The curves are slightly jittery because of simulation variability.)

These also appear, with further discussion, in chapter 9 of Red State, Blue State.

OK, lots of warnings here. These results should be interpreted with caution–they’re based on a model extrapolating from one survey in one year. They key point is that Andres, in his article quoted above, can be both wrong and right. Despite Americans’ well-known tendency to describe themselves as conservative, the evidence is that Republicans (at least, George W. Bush in 2004) would’ve done well to move left on economic policy, to move closer to the majority of the voters and to blur the differences between themselves and the Democrats on this important issue dimension. At the same time, if all goes well and this produces a 2% gain at the polls, that still wouldn’t have been enough to bring John McCain into the White House. The “Will they do a good job?” question was paramount.

P.S. I’m sure that my recommendation to “blur the differences” will annoy some people, so let me explain. In an election campaign, there are a lot of ways to distinguish the two parties, and a lot of specific issues where the Democratic and Republican candidates will differ. But, given the current overall positions of the parties on economic issues (as well as the Democrats’ traditional strength on questions such as, Which party better represents people like you), it does not appear to be an electoral winner for the Republicans to be perceived as generally to the right of the Democrats on economics.

P.P.S. The commenters to Jim’s blog also had some useful things to add about the interpretation of the National Election Study data that Andres cites.