New research led by Professor Anthony Fowler makes an empirical case for renewed attention to the middle of the political spectrum.
Professor Anthony Fowler

It’s indisputable that American elected officials are more politically polarized than ever before. Yet new research challenges the idea that voters are just as polarized, providing compelling evidence that moderates are more prevalent and powerful than commonly believed.

The research was led by Anthony Fowler, Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and a team of coauthors. They propose a novel framework for sorting and studying the American electorate, revealing that moderates hold immense power over electoral change. Moderates are also highly influenced by the ideologies and qualities of a political candidate rather than mere party affiliation.

“If you turn on cable news or open your Twitter feed, it seems like Americans are more polarized than ever, and we tend to obsess over the extreme ends of the political spectrum,” said Fowler. “But when you take a closer look, it’s clear that moderates are central to electoral change.”

The authors argue that conventional methods of segmenting the electorate can cause us to misunderstand and underestimate the role of moderates. For example, if some respondents are extreme liberals on half the issues and extreme conservatives on the other half, they are classified as moderates. The authors propose a more nuanced approach, modeling the broader pattern of responses to multiple, related policy questions to paint a more vivid picture.

Three distinct voting groups emerge from this new model:

  1. Those who hold genuine policy views that fit neatly on the traditional liberal-conservative spectrum of ideology. This group comprises nearly three in four Americans, the majority of whom hold moderate views.
  2. Those who hold genuine policy views that lean moderate but are idiosyncratic and poorly explained by the traditional liberal-conservative spectrum. For example, they may support higher taxes to fund Social Security but believe the Medicare program should be repealed. This group comprises about one in five Americans, yet is unaccounted for in traditional classifications.
  3. Those whose policy views are random and incoherent, either because they don’t pay attention to politics or are inattentive when responding to voter surveys. This small group, comprising about 7 percent of Americans, are more likely to provide extreme responses than even extreme liberals or conservatives. Therefore, the authors argue, it’s crucial to separate them from traditionally defined moderates, though conventional methods do not.

The study found that the first group, genuine moderates, are particularly influential on elections. Rather than blind adherence to a particular party, they are highly swayed by the qualities of a particular candidate and willing to switch votes between parties. This group comprised 65 percent of voters who switched parties between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election, followed by the more idiosyncratic moderates at 32 percent of vote switchers.

Moderates also appear to be more discerning and deliberate in their voting patterns than ideologues. For example, the study found that moderates’ vote choice in U.S. House elections is four to five times more likely to be influenced by a candidate’s ideologies when compared to the choice of liberals and conservatives, and two to three times more responsive to the candidate’s experience.

“Our findings show that to the extent elected officials are polarized, it’s likely not attributable to mass voting behavior.” Fowler said. “Many Americans are not ideologically extreme, and they are especially important for political accountability and selection.”

The authors emphasized the importance of ongoing study of America’s political midpoint, and believe their technique provides a repeatable framework for doing so.