The Power of the Moderate Voting Block Writ Large
In what can best be described as a case of crawling “up” a rabbit hole, a message came across my Twitter feed that can best be described as “epiphanous.” This one (left) by Matt Grossmann (@MattGrossmann – an incredibly good Twitter follow for political insight and data) was in reference to a panel by Dan Hopkins from FiveThirtyEight (also left).
So before I launch into the meat of this essay, let me first walk you through my thoughts when reading the above. First, Hopkins’ panel admittedly states that his panel over-represented older, more consistent voters. He’s right. As you grow in age, you grow more predictable in party, as this graph from Pew shows:
Now if you’re a political scientist then please, bear with me. This is hardly ground-breaking stuff. You’ve likely known for a very, very long time that people, for the most part, don’t change their mind. At the very least, you’ve likely known that most who identify with a party do not change their mind or if they do, it’s such a small percentage that no one really pays any attention to it. For some of us, this is a startling piece of news, but I digress. Having said that, I think a few political science majors would be somewhat surprised as it would appear Dan Hopkins was. And again, crawling “up” the rabbit hole caused me to find Matt Grossmann’s tweet sub-tweeted by a gentleman named Josh Kalla (@j_kalla), a political and data scientist at Yale. He, along with David Broockman (@dbroockman), a political scientist at the Stanford School of Business, co-authored a paper titled “The Minimal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments.”
(You’ll need access to view the file – but email/DM the author on twitter, they’ll likely send you a PDF for free).
In essence, we come to the conclusion that people do not change their mind on who to vote for but rather, whether or not they vote.
This will be a recurring theme here.
So what does this say about elections? Well, we’re starting to understand the political machinations of the various players in this game. While that could be an entirely different article, it’s important to at least outline some of it before we continue and get to the question I’m trying to answer.
We (and I’m speaking of us in the general public again) have all heard the term “rallying the base” (or “solidifying” or “uniting” in place of “rallying”). This refers to what political pundits might describe as an essential part of winning an election. Take all of the partisans you have and get them on your side. Rather famously, many of them said Trump did not do that and, by power of deduction, could not win the election. We will see below why this logic was faulty but it has to do with a) voter apathy and b) the power of the moderate/independent voting block – a block itself that still has a majority that tend to vote one way but a very large minority that has very specific reasoning for it’s own vote and it came together in a very odd storm to get Trump elected in 2016. But there’s a reason the term “rallying” is the only one that is appropriate. Bases, typically, do not split. They either show up to vote for their candidate or they do not. While we heard much talk of “Bernie Bros” dumping Hilary and voting for Trump (still, a miniscule number), trying to understand their motivations was not going to be that difficult. Ask Dave Chapelle.
“She’s going to be on a coin someday. And her behavior has not
been coin-worthy. She’s not right and we all know she’s not right.”
It isn’t that much of a shock that people thought “Bernie or Bust” or, having decided to vote for a Democrat, were not so excited about it as to drag people to the polls with them. Which, arguably, is one of the many factors that cost her the election. According to PBS, Hilary had 2 million fewer ballots than Obama did in 2012 (itself a significantly lower turnout than 2008). And Trump? He saw a marginal increase over Romney’s numbers.
What is the difference in these elections? The independent, moderate American.
Here is where the rubber meets the road and we get into the most important block of voters in America. I am going to make three arguments about independent, moderate voters:
1) They decide elections.
2) They are the force that keeps politics less extreme.
In arguing these points, we can begin to answer the question of whether it is worth organizing the moderate voting block and what that might look like. I hope to prove to you by the end that the moderate American voice is often an untapped resource that is the dominant power in long-term political trends and whether or not it is organized would only change how effective they are at heading off Trumpist disasters before they start.
Moderates Decide Elections
The first thing you should see, when making a claim this fantastic, is data. This is from an article written by Stuart Rothenberg, a political scientist at Inside Elections. “Sure, there were many more Democrats than Republicans in the 2008 (+7 points) and 2012 (+6 points) exit poll samples, when Barack Obama won the White House and was re-elected comfortably. But the 2006 exits showed Democrats making up only 38 percent of the electorate — to the GOP’s 36 percent — while riding a 31-seat wave to take back control of the House.”
What does that mean? Well.. this:
“The two big wave elections of the last 20 years were both driven by independents, who voted Democratic by a margin of 18 points in 2006 (57 percent to 39 percent), Republican by an equally large margin in 2010 (59 percent to 41 percent). During Obama’s second midterm, in 2014, independents also went Republican by a substantial margin (54 percent to 42 percent).”
It is not a ground-breaking assertion then to suggest that so goes independents, so goes the country. One would be forgiven for thinking that the above represents a set of voters that think critically and swing hither and yon based on a number of factors (which we’ll get to in a minute). Not so fast. There’s one more crucial piece of data to assemble before we continue.
The number of Americans that identity as independent has grown substantially in the last two years and seems to during times of great political partisanship. It certainly seems like they are always desperately partisan and, for the most part, they are. But at some points the differences become so intractable that congress in particular becomes deadlocked and the electorate grows frustrated. At times of unity, independent numbers decrease. Take this Gallup poll, for instance:
Independent voter numbers drop to around the 30% mark during: the end of the Cold War and post-9/11 America before seeing sharp rises since 2008. What I find particularly interesting is how this bar graph shows the fluctuation seems closer tied to Republican numbers before 2000, and Democrat numbers post-2000. You can also see a rather pronounced “Bush Bump” (41 and 43) in Republican numbers that otherwise trend down. Independent bumps happen with the rise of Newt Gingrich, the run-up to Obama’s election, and then they bubble up before peaking in 2014, though the trend is still rising.
But what about the dynamics within this group of people? It seems foolish to suggest that 42% of the electorate are independent, bias-free, rationality machines carefully considering all the angles. This is where we identify the actual independent, moderate voters and we also call out the media on its inability to understand the entire group of independents. Here, in a study entitled “The Myth of the Independent Voter” we have some rather damning evidence of my initial claim – that they decide elections:
Below is a sample from primary elections between 1980 and 1988 and it’s important to mention that because there’s surprisingly little recent research on independent voter behavior. The problem? The people so described here just don’t vote that often.
“The conventional wisdom, and the root cause of all the worry about partisan instability, is that Independents "are not guided by a party affiliation." As we have just seen, this seems a fair description of Pure Independents' voting practices.”
The same lack of voting, however, must be said for these critical categories – “Independent Republicans” and “Independent Democrats.” A revision of the hypothesis is necessary. The “Pure Independents” represent those voters that are the most rational actors in politics but they a) make up a small minority of voters and b) are not inclined to vote very often. There’s plenty of satirical commentary fodder right there, but we’ll roll on past. Because it’s time to get to move on to voter motivations.
They are the Force that Keeps Politics Less Extreme
Some terminology borrowed from the world of immigration study that also adequately describe the migration of ideas with the political sphere. As defined by World Atlas, push and pull factors refer to things that cause people to migrate away (push) or gravitate towards (pull) a place. In politics, they refer to a set of ideas that motivate your partisan stance. It’s not hard to imagine, if you tend to vote Democrat, that you might not agree with many of their policy decisions (slight push), but you do agree on most (strong pull), and you certainly do not agree with many of the Republican policies (strong push), while agreeing on maybe one (slight pull). Independents are characterized by a much more subtle difference in these factors, but research has been performed on which of these is strongest and it frankly is not even close (photo below left).
Far outpacing the party they lean towards is the party they do not (with one interesting exception I’d like to highlight later). If we combine this data with that from the “myth” study we start to build a clearer picture of the moderate voter. As I have mentioned on the Elevated Minds Podcast before, these are people who are too busy or uninterested to take part in the political process unless things become too important to pass up on. This is why the groups that “lean” one way or the other are so important. As a collective, they do act like a moderate, rational, long-term-thinking, pure independent. As individuals, they are finally motivated to vote when the other party becomes so bad for the country that they feel no other choice.
Does this explain the 2016 election surprise? You bet it does. While Trump did not “rally the base” as many thought he did, he was viewed by many in the Republican establishment as somewhat moderate compared to the people he ran against (some of us were not fooled and now, frankly, none of us are). Leaning Dems in swing states were often white, middle class, suburban workers that saw eight years of Obama come and go with little economic uplift. The result? They weren’t all that motivated to vote. Independents on the right saw the epitome of someone they could not stand (Hilary Clinton) and were motivated to vote. That exception I parenthetically mentioned earlier also comes into play. While 28% of Democrat-leaners say they are frustrated with Republican leadership, 52% of Republican-leaners say the same about Democrat leadership. A prime example of a motivating factor for these folks? The Democrats anointed Hilary the incumbent before the primary process even began. Push factors indeed.
How does this fit in to the recent mid-term election? As we saw, the Democrats took control of the House while Republicans gained seats in the Senate. A layman (with admittedly, no or little information) would find this surprising. For why it is not, we have to understand the geography of the electorate in these places. To establish those, we look at tendencies in this research by Pew (photo left). While this should come as little surprise, a critical piece in the suburbs is the amount of independent voters. The independent electorate, remember, has a tendency to show up when one party becomes too extreme or too dangerous (they deem) for the country. And the suburbs showed up in droves for the 2018 mid-terms. So what happened in the Senate? If so many showed up, why did the Dems lose seats?
Two key factors played in and the first requires no analysis – of the 35 Senate seats up for their 6-year election term, only 8 were held by Republican incumbents. Looking just at the demographics of the seats available to be plucked, FiveThirtyEight never had the chance for a blue Senate wave above 34.4% - and that was back in August. Ten of the Democratic seats were up in states with heavy rural populations that Trump won by double digits. What does that mean? Not a whole lot of independent voters in those states. It is worth noting, however, how close these various elections were and how few of them were lost or, if they are lost (as in Florida and Arizona they have not yet been decided), how nail-biting it was in places that have long been Republican strongholds. The “leaners” have the most to do with it. Republican leaners tended to stay home while Democratic leaners tended to show up, particularly women.
In this election, a strong check was placed on candidates that demonstrated overt partisanship, particularly if the candidates were Republican. In the high-profile Texas senate race, Beto O’Rourke managed to bring the race to within a single percentage point, having soundly defeated his previous opponent by just under 16 points. The Texas Tribune reported, just one week before the election that the notoriously-Republican Texas independents favored Beto by a 12 point margin. As mentioned before, they’re still counting the votes in Florida and Arizona, though it will also likely end up Republican in both. The crazier the politics, the greater the turnout by independents.
So What Now?
I want to clarify a few things at the outset. There are many misconceptions about the independent voters in the United States and many individual data pieces are taken and interpreted wildly out of the context they should be given. For instance, there have been major “hit pieces” on the independent voter in the LA Times, the Washington Post, and Vox. Each one seems to get one particular aspect wrong as they assume that which many people assume; voters on the fence need to decide who to vote for. That’s not what defines an independent (aside from the miniscule number of “pure” independents). What defines them is their willingness to vote. In this way, independents are the thermostat of party politics. Too much conservative non-sense and the democratic coolant is added to the mixture. Too much political correctness and the republican coolant rises.
What is maddening about this group of people is just what it takes to get them to vote. We largely have them to thank for Trump, though the critical mixture of eight years of relative economic inaction (compared to the booms we saw in the 90’s and early 00’s) and the nomination of the single least-electable person in the Democratic party (excepting Harvey Weinstein) is the larger reason for that result. In an era also where the reliable bases are often the target of voter suppression methods via gerrymandering or polling locations/availability, the willingness to step in and correct for these tactics is needed.
So how do we make this block of voters more sensitive to temperature changes in the American political system? Should we? Or does the current process bear things out in an acceptable manner? Trump is certainly evidence that this fail-safe has its limits. Do we attempt to upset this system just because of one failure? For the most part, we have not witnessed failures like this in modern times. Sure, we have had swings in house membership (Party of Tea, anyone?) but these extreme swings are quickly corrected, often within one or two election cycles. I suppose the question here, then, is whether we want this block to further limit these swings. If so… how does one do that?
If we follow any direction forward, independents must first identify that which they can all agree on. To my mind, this must be apolitical issues and the all-encompassing ideals are expertise and the rule of law. I would also like to point to a Washington Post article that analyzes a Fox News poll. Of people who dislike Trump (and independents reflect the larger picture here – most people “strongly disapprove” of Trump), the top reasons given were “not capable, bad temperament, racist, and corrupt” in that order.
Something that should worry Republicans (if the mid-terms do not already), the top reason people approve of Trump is “jobs and the economy.” As for proof that it already has caused a few underwear changes – the tax cut bills are to do that which the Republicans always do to stay in the game – rig the system so it stays afloat while they’re in charge only to collapse when the guard is changed. In short – a recession is coming and the tax cuts are an attempt to stave off its arrival until after 2020. This has been the longest running game of “hide the ball” that we’ve seen. Cut taxes, handcuff the federal government, and then when the effects are felt (when Democrats take control), claim they are the only fiscally-responsible people in the building and come back in a wave. While Republican presidents take on the majority of recessions, Democrats are blamed for the rebuild taking too long. Sometimes, they deserve it.
While I think it would be beneficial to organize the moderate voice around apolitical issues like the rule of law and trust in expertise, it occurs to me that one of the only ways to get this group to coalesce in actuality is identity politics – for someone to identify these people as the “babysitters” of the two partisan extremes. The other group that long stood up to represent this group has largely abandoned this type of message because it does not sell newspapers (or increase ratings). The president of the United States used a military show over a migrant caravan to influence the election and the media cycle is dominated by the removal of Jim Acosta’s press credentials. A thing to be covered? Definitely. To dominate all coverage? Nope. The continuing degradation of American norms and the authoritarian leanings of a leader unchecked by Congress needs to be the daily headline. But outrage pays the bills.
In closing, I have this to say. The media, the president, the political parties each play a role in the partisan rhetoric and polarizing conversation seen in American public life today. However, it must be noted that the “Silent Majority” (or as I called them, “The Gilded Majority” in a piece written after the 2016 election – also my first podcast!) has proven to be surprisingly resilient to this public rancor. Despite all of these things, the election results point to an independent electorate that is seeking less divisiveness and has rejected the ideas that seek to increase these things. Trump’s approval rating is historically bad, and that’s against presidents who sat through recessions. One of the motivating factors behind Bill Maher’s unfortunate comment, is just how bad Trump’s rating would be and how complete the demolition of the GOP would be in the face of just such an event.
“I think one way you get rid of Trump is a crashing economy.
So please, bring on the recession. Sorry if that hurts people,
but it’s either root for a recession or lose your democracy.”
I happen to think Bill is wrong in one sense – we don’t need a recession to get rid of Trump. Moderate voters have made that clear. However, we do need something else to happen and it’s something we are not accustomed to seeing happen – the Democrats must stay on message, stay away from polarizing positions, and not take the bait dropped by Trump and the other Republicans.
Unfortunately, the bait-takers are typically the hosts of the 24-hour news cycle and so long as the rhetoric on these networks is continually dialed up, we can expect the moderating effect of the silent majority to be somewhat muted as both portions of its collective brains gain motivation to vote. In closing, I would like to pivot from this by saying that there is some hope in the form of… television ratings. While Fox continues to post excellent numbers (I said hope, didn’t it?), the trends look like this:
“In the 25–54 demographic, the drops were more pronounced across the board, with Fox News down 17 percent, averaging 252,000 viewers in the category. MSNBC averaged 194,000 in the younger demographic and was down 16 percent from this time last year. CNN was third with 209,000 viewers in the category while experiencing a 24 percent drop.”
The dialed-up rhetoric from these networks wore off on the most important “ad-friendly” demographics. If they are going to bring in viewers, they’ll have to tailor their message to a group of people decidedly less crazy. Here’s hoping.
The moderate voter can be coalesced into a slightly more predictable voting block with the right market forces applied and I think we also have reason enough to see this coming. The viewership numbers for long-form podcasts like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Preet Bharara, and Pod Save America (among others) suggest that a television network will eventually catch on to the appetite these independently-minded viewers have for moderate discussion and just how much they are willing to pay for it. Podcasts supported by Patreon donations in Sam’s range hover around $50k per month in donations. The people in this voting block, present company included, are ready to hear civic-minded people not taken to talking points or heated bloviating. What will the harnessing of this voting power look like? A political organization? I find that to be highly unlikely and instead look to the market to capitalize (further) on this gap, further rallying the independent base.