By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, April 17, 2017)
The mainstream opinion factories continue to kick out articles about how the 2016 elections failed to represent the true nature of public opinion in the U.S.
“We live in a country where the majority agree with the “liberal” position,” according to filmmaker Michael Moore. “We just lack the liberal leadership to make that happen.”
Given that the man pretty much called this last presidential election long before anybody else ever did, its hard not to take his opinion seriously.
And Moore isn’t alone in this opinion. After cherry-picking issues and statistics, Wired’s Issie Lapowsky and The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, also concluded this country has been transforming into a Center-Left country for a long time now because we increasingly support gender pay equity, marriage equality, abortion rights, and stronger gun control legislation. All true, by the way.
But none of these astigmatic expositions come close to the hyper-partisan rage of the Daily Kos‘ Fred Bur and his February 18th article, “The “center-right country” myth and smoldering dog sh*t.”
After dismissing the distinguished career of pollster Douglas Schoen because he hadn’t heard of him before, Bur went on to list why anyone that thinks this is a Center-Right country is peddling “smoldering shit from the dog the size of Neptune.” A great line. Unfortunately, it was buried in its own pile of pooh posing as a serious argument meant to convince readers that we, in fact, live in a Center-Left country.
Here is a short summary of his argument: Those people that say we are a Center-Right country are selecting biased polling data that fits their narrative; now here is my biased selection of polling and election data that proves we are a Center-Left country.
Bur left me unconvinced. I require a more structured, systematic look at the data. And, luckily, the 2016 American National Election Study fielded jointly by Stanford University and the University of Michigan provides that.
You can get more detail about the ANES methodology here. The most important thing to know about this study is that it has been fielded for every election cycle since 1948, had a sample size around 3,600 people in 2016, and is representative of vote-eligible Americans. In other words, they don’t interview children, prisoners and illegal aliens. Everyone else was potentially on their contact list.
And what does the 2016 ANES tell us? It tells us how the Democratic Party could nominate the most qualified presidential nominee in modern U.S. electoral history, face the most unprepared opponent imaginable, at a time when the U.S. economy was growing, and still lose the presidency, the U.S. House, and most state legislative and gubernatorial races.
More broadly, the 2016 ANES reveals the most lucent feature of America’s vote-eligible population: Most Americans are neither Left or Right in terms of their issue positions — though, on average, they lean slightly to the Right on the issues that matter most at election time.
On his point that the Democrats are more than competitive in U.S. elections, Bur is correct. It will not require a monumental sea change in public opinion for the Democrats to win most elections once again.
But, right now, when looking over a broad selection of issues, the Democrats are not in alignment with the majority of Americans, particularly those issues that drive election outcomes. The Democrats are a Center-Left party in Center-Right country.
Remember, the Democrats didn’t just lose the presidency. They lost every level of elected government we have in this country. Is that not the best indication of our nation’s right-of-center partisan bias? It our nation’s factory-setting.
Even if we allow that Clinton was more popular than Trump as measured by the popular vote (though we didn’t hold a popular vote presidential election in 2016), we have U.S. congressional and thousands of state-level races to explain.
And the 2016 ANES does that.
Using a simple statistical technique, I clustered the 3,649 ANES respondents as either Left, Middle or Center based on their responses to a wide range of issues (the data and computer algorithms can be provided upon email request to: email@example.com). It should be noted that the 2016 ANES was conducted in two pre- and post-election waves. Most of the issues cited below were asked in the post-election wave.
Overall, I categorize 51 percent of Americans as in the Middle of the ideological spectrum, while only 22 percent are on the Left and 27 percent on the Right. Politicians and opinion journalists may be polarized. The people that spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter promoting the #MAGA or #ImStillWithHer hashtags may be polarized. But not average Americans.
This is good news if you want future U.S. elections to be competitive between the two major parties. Its bad news if you think Donald Trump’s victory was a stolen one and will be rectified over the next two election cycles.
When viewing U.S. public opinion over many decades, the 2016 ANES results are unsurprising. The American Voter, authored in 1960 by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes, found a similar American electorate. In their study, most Americans were in the ideological center, often holding contradictory opinions when compared to more ideologically consistent partisans. The American Voter’s oft-cited finding that politics is just not that important to Americans still holds up today and helps explain why ideological purity matters more to political partisans and journalists than it does to average Americans.
In 2014, writing in response to a Pew Research Center report on the polarization of the American electorate, Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina concluded, “The country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” Citing the General Social Survey among other data sources, Fiorina argued that, “with occasional small exceptions, moderate remains the modal category today just as it was in the days of Jimmy Carter.”
Fiorina’s conclusion shouldn’t change given the 2016 ANES results.
To avoid analytical cherry-picking, Figure 1 below shows a large selection of issues used to cluster the 2016 ANES respondents. For comparability across the ideological groups, all responses are normalized where a negative value indicates the group’s average response is below the mean (Disagree/Oppose) and a positive value indicates the group’s average response is above the mean (Agree/Favor).
Figure 1: OPINIONS OF VOTE-ELIGIBLE AMERICANS BY IDEOLOGICAL GROUP
(Source: 2016 American National Election Survey)
CLICK TO ENLARGE
On most issues, centrist Americans are equidistant from the two ideological extremes. For example, take the question of whether the federal government should be doing “more, not less” (the 6th item from the top in Figure 1). Right-leaning Americans are almost one standard deviation below the average response. In other words, they disagree by a lot (!) that the federal government should be doing more. Conversely, Left-leaning Americans are much more likely to agree with that statement and “Middle-of-the-Road” Americans, as their label suggests, are at the average. Not surprising.
Partisans, by definition, are polarized on most issues. Lacking any creativity, I call these issues — “polarizing issues” — as they are the topics that also tend to dominate our news media’s conflict-focused discourse: the role of government, Syrian refugees, Black Lives Matter, border walls, immigration, climate change.
Conversely, we also see those issues where the ideological extremes don’t distinguish themselves. Examples include free trade agreements, Social Security spending, limits on campaign spending, and gender pay equity.
But Figure 1 really gains its value when it identifies those issues where the Middle is not equidistant from the Left or the Right. These are the tactical issues the parties should emphasize in their effort to win elections.
In Figure 1, we see the issues where, at present, each party possesses a tactical advantage over the other party. For the Democrats (Left), they are aligned with most Americans (Middle) when they:
- Advocate for higher taxes on millionaires (and, more generally, aim to reduce economic inequality)
- Promise to protect Social Security
- Acknowledge that global warming is real
- Promote policies to protect the environment
For the Republicans (Right), they are with most Americans when they:
- Defend the interests of the private sector
- Promote policies that support law enforcement and reduce crime
- Defend the federal government’s anti-terrorism efforts (such as domestic wiretapping)
- Advocate for the defense of traditional values
- Work to protect American jobs from illegal immigration
- Express concern over perceived declines in American culture
The implications of the 2016 ANES data are not subtle. Going forward, it is to the Democrats’ electoral advantage to convince the Middle that issues, such as the environment, are among the most important issues facing Americans. Conversely, the Republicans are in a superior position electorally when the Middle perceives the promotion of free enterprise, security, and traditional values as the most important issues facing this country.
Unfortunately, the 2016 ANES has yet to release the data on what issues were most important to Americans in 2016. However, we have other sources, such as Pew Research and the Gallup Organization, that found issues such as jobs, the economy, terrorism, national security, crime, and immigration were among the most important issues to Americans going into the 2016 elections. Concerns about the environment simply did not drive most voters’ choices last November.
In general, the Republicans have the tactical advantage on the most important electoral issues – the economy and national security. However, despite recent losses, there is reason for optimism among Democrats, and not because of any expectation that the FBI will prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians or that this country will slide into chaos during the current administration. Those expectations rest more on hope than the facts, as of now.
No, the better source of buoyancy for Democrats’ hopes is that the post-materialist issues, such as the environment, social justice and civil rights, may someday attain a level of importance with voters that issues like the economy and national security do today. Which is not to say the Democrats can’t also be competitive on the materialist issues. But the Democrats’ wheelhouse remains civil rights and social justice issues. And that’s not going to change any time soon. Just as it is unlikely the Republicans can quickly pivot into a neo-Green party.
How ironic would it be if, over the next four years, the American economy prospered and the ISIS threat diminished so much that Americans turned their political attention more to the environment, economic equality and social justice. Ask Winston Churchill about such irony. He led the British through the darkest days of World War II to an impending victory only to be rewarded with an electoral defeat in 1945 to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party.
Voters are funny that way.
CURRENT AND FUTURE POLITICAL BATTLES
Where we sit today, we do not have a polarized electorate – even if our elected leaders are more polarized than ever. The Left and Right are both competitive and the Middle still determines electoral outcomes.
But to acknowledge that most Americans are centrists does not mean there aren’t polarizing issues in this country. There are and Figures 2 through 6 below show most of them, as well as issues where Americans have reached a social consensus and the issues where people are still sorting themselves out.
This key shows how we defined these issue categories and how we assigned each issue to them:
Figures 2 through 6, show the percentage of vote-eligible Americans in each agreement category for a selection of issue-items in the 2016 ANES. For example, 77 percent of vote-eligible Americans agree that it is important to reduce government deficits; only 7 percent disagree with that statement and 19 percent are unsure. This issue, therefore, is a prime example of a “consensus” issue.
THE CONSENSUS ISSUES:
One of the more interesting findings from the 2016 ANES is that on many issues Americans have achieved an apparent consensus: reducing deficits, favoring higher taxes on the top income brackets, increasing investments in crime prevention, support for marriage equality, support for the 2nd Amendment, equal pay for men and women. the reality of global warming and the belief that we can protect the environment without jeopardizing jobs.
Abortion, while not a consensus issue, it is close to being one with 45 percent of Americans supporting few if any restrictions on abortions and 41 percent supporting abortion rights but with strict restrictions. Only 14 percent of Americans are against it under all circumstances.
While all these consensus issues were visible in the 2016 presidential election, none of them could be considered the dominate issues in that race.
THE POLARIZING ISSUES:
Polarizing issues are a different matter altogether. Few should be surprised that whether to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border divides Americans. Thirty-three percent of Americans support it, 46 percent do not, and 21 percent are still unsure. But it is not the most polarizing issue in America.
According to our analysis, gun control, as in “making it more difficult to buy a gun in this country” is the most polarizing issue we face. Fifty-four percent of Americans think it should be more difficult, but 40 percent oppose such restrictions. Only 6 percent of Americans are still unsure.
Other divisive issues in this country are the transgender (bathroom bill) controversy, and whether to move towards a government-based health care system.
Notice that the polarizing issues were all prominent in the 2016 presidential election.
THE GROUND BATTLE ISSUES:
Finally, the 2016 ANES shows us the many issues we, as a country, are still sorting through. These are issues where most Americans’ preferences remain undecided or tentative. These issues include whether government wiretapping has gone too far in the name of security, whether American businesses should face more regulation, whether the U.S. should pursue more free trade agreements, whether recent global warming is mostly anthropogenic in nature, and whether fracking is an acceptable way to extract natural gas for our nation’s energy needs.
The strong partisans portray these issues as settled. Among Americans, they are not. Subsequently, these issues will be ripe for exploitation by either party depending on which direction American public opinion ultimately breaks.
CLINTON WAS A CENTER-LEFT CANDIDATE IN A CENTER-RIGHT COUNTRY
The empirical evidence says, despite the many contentious, undecided issues we face, we are not a divided nation. In general, Americans are moderates with an ideological hue towards the right of center, particularly on the issues that matter most at election time – namely, the support of free enterprise, limited government, a strong national defense posture, controlled immigration, and the defense of traditional family values. These are not winning issues for the Democrats.
That is why Clinton lost to Donald Trump.
Unless the Democrats move to the right or convince the American people that civil rights, expanding the social safety net, reversing climate change, and economic equity are the most important issues facing this country, they will continue to face a strong headwind on election day. To become a durable governing majority, the Democrats must acknowledge their current weakness is not just a process or organizational problem. The Democrats are losing to the Republicans on the level of ideas.
Until the Democrats come to grips with that problem, the Republicans will continue to disproportionately benefit from the distribution of opinions currently observed within the American public.
But, Democrats, do not despair. There is a stubborn level of unanimity in the U.S. and that all but guarantees, in the long-run, both parties can go from widespread electoral defeats in one election to convincing victories in the next election.
Yes, our political and media elites are more divided than ever, but it is overlaying a polity that does not mirror this division and, by many indications, would prefer to see it end and be replaced with a political system capable of solving today’s biggest problems in a civil and productive manner without all the drama.
In that opinion, I hope we can all agree.
About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistician with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He presently manages a public opinion polling firm, The Olson Kroeger Company, with offices in Des Moines, Iowa and Ewing, New Jersey. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).
He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org