The Right Point

Sunday, April 15th 2012. | Science News

0416KELLERblechman-popupTHE other day Rick Santorum, with rigor mortis setting into his campaign, stepped up to a microphone in Mars, Pa. (Yes, really.) His complaint was a familiar one: For too long the Republican “aristocracy” has shoved moderate nominees down the throats of the voters. “There’s one person,” he declared, referring to Ronald Reagan, “who understood we don’t win by moving to the middle. We win by getting people in the middle to move to us.”

Clearly that strategy didn’t work for Santorum. He stuck to his rightist fundamentalism, he was true to who he is, and the Republican middle remained unmoved. Yet many activists in both parties cling, like Santorum, to the hope that they can win from a position of impassioned orthodoxy. And like Santorum, they are usually wrong. Even Reagan moved to the middle from time to time.

Centrism is easily mocked and not much fun to defend. Many on the left who find Santorum’s politics repellent would agree with him that moving to the middle is intellectually uninspiring and morally unsatisfying. Even if you are not someone who thrills to the trumpets of moral clarity or regards “uncompromising” as the highest praise, you can see where they’re coming from. The politics of the center — including the professional centrists and trans-partisans of groups like Third Way and Americans Elect — do not quicken the pulse. White bread, elevator music, No Labels, meh.

The middle matters, though, even if in these hyperpolarized times it doesn’t get much respect. It has been a truism of modern politics, at least since “The Real Majority” was published in 1970, that elections are usually decided by voters who are not wedded to either party, who don’t stay in any ideological lane. These voters are thought to constitute roughly 15 percent of the electorate, give or take a few points. Add enough of them to your loyal base, and victory is yours.

We are now embarked on a race between two candidates who have, at critical points in their careers, demonstrated an ability to win by building on the middle. Which of them can do it again? Who are these voters? And what do they want?

Be warned: political science is an inexact science, if not an outright oxymoron. “We’re trying to make this into ‘Moneyball,’ ” said John Sides of George Washington University, who regards most theories about the middle with suspicion. “It’s really still a lot of scouts telling you what’s in their gut.”

But here are some generalities that pass my own gut check.

The middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics, or a cult that worships bipartisan process for its own sake. Swing voters have views; they are just not views that all come from any one party’s menu. Researchers at Third Way, a Clintonian think tank, have assembled a pretty plausible composite profile of these up-for-grabs voters.

¶Swing voters tend to be fiscal conservatives, meaning they are profoundly worried about deficits and debt.

¶They are mostly economic moderates, meaning they are free-marketers but they expect government to help provide the physical and intellectual infrastructure that creates opportunity.

¶They are aspirational — that is, they have nothing against the rich — but they don’t oppose tax increases.

¶They want the country well protected, but not throwing its weight around in the world.

¶They tend to be fairly progressive on social issues; they think, for example, that abortion should be discouraged but not prohibited.

Bruce Gyory, who studies voting trends at the State University of New York at Albany, says the swing voters are predominantly white and suburban, have at least some college, and have decent incomes. In this time of precarious jobs, devalued homes and shriveled retirement savings, they are more anxious than angry, more interested in fixing the future than in affixing blame for the past.

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