Politics & Policy

Self-Described Moderates Are Driving the Trump Coalition

Trump supporters at a rally in Las Vegas, February 22, 2016. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

At the advent of the Trump phenomenon, when the billionaire first started drawing crowds and making waves with his rhetorical bombs, the conventional wisdom was that he was appealing to a restless conservative base, the same ideologically attuned audience that scuttled John Boehner’s speakership and found its champions in insurgents like Ted Cruz. But as the polls began to come in, they revealed a striking trend. While Trump indeed led among conservative voters — as he led among all demographic groups and subgroups — his advantage was driven by disproportionate support among self-described moderates. As the polls gave way to actual votes, this phenomenon was borne out in exit interviews. As David Frum noted on Twitter after South Carolina’s results came in: “Trump beat Rubio in SC by 11 points among self-described moderates. How can that be?”

At first glance this sounds not only counterintuitive, but would also seem to undermine the electability premise of Trump’s competitor’s candidacy. After all, it is Rubio whose sheen and optimism is thought by many to be tailor-made for crossover appeal in swing states. If he’s losing the moderate vote to Trump, what’s the point of his candidacy, to say nothing of his primary path?

But to understand Trump’s dominance with this voting bloc, it is important to parse what we mean by “moderate.” First, this nebulous self-identification is derived from a clunky ideological ternary: “Would you describe yourself as liberal, conservative, or moderate?” Thus, by definition, “moderate” is merely a catch-all term for people who resist being put in a neat and tidy political box. For some, moderate is an aspirational state of mind, like describing oneself as “middle class” irrespective of one’s income — people don’t like to think of themselves as extreme anything, much less as ideologues. For others it’s a rejection of the parties and the pejorative labels they have become associated with. But perhaps most of all it is a reflection of the fact that many people simply don’t think about politics in a particularly deep or coherent way. Patrick Ruffini pondered this dichotomy on Twitter over the weekend:

Without accounting for one’s place on this axis, crude ideological labels mean little. And as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio work to clear their narrow “lanes” that are predicated on a certain sense of political identity or philosophical investment, Trump has cornered the market on the far broader group that is at best ambivalent about the GOP, and at worst want nothing more than to burn its current iteration down.

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When we note that Trump’s base is not especially conservative, or that he wins among moderate voters, there’s a tendency to conflate the Acela Corridor connotation of moderate with whatever Trump has tapped into. These are not the squishy Bobos of David Brooks. This is not mild-mannered, impeccably pleated No Labels centrism. To the contrary, Trump’s strength with this group is correlated with his disproportionate share of the blue-collar vote.

#share#Ultimately the problem with ascribing ideological labels to your average American (much less asking them to self-identify), is that they are not ideologically consistent enough for it to mean anything. Most people simply don’t live or consume politics in that way. Yet we are limited both by language and by our conventional understanding of what these terms imply. As Will Jordan put it, “The reason Trump wins moderates is not because he wins people with moderate views, it’s because that’s not necessarily what a moderate is.” David Broockman wrote an interesting piece in the Washington Post suggesting that voters are far more extreme than their elected representatives, but that their heterodox extremes even out to “moderate on average.” The upshot:

The disengaged and infrequent voters who allegedly constitute the moderate middle are actually more likely to endorse extreme policies than politically active voters.

Trump’s moderates represent this radical middle; the same strain of Jacksonian America that propelled names like Perot, Buchanan, and Ventura. That Trump strikes a chord with this group is meaningful and interesting, and worthy of closer examination — by the parties as well as the press — but the tendency to confuse this resonance with strength in critical collar counties and metro suburbs is either misguided or disingenuous.

#related#In the end this might be a moot point — after all, a vote is a vote, and in a fractured field, Trump’s ideology-free candidacy gives him a certain unique advantage. Moreover, these are voters who Republicans will need to turn out again in the fall. But in the meantime the data is being cherry-picked to draw false conclusions: Namely, that Trump can not only win swing voters, but that he can do so more effectively than his more conventional opponents. This is not only a dubious conceit, as I’ve previously written, it’s reward-free roll of the dice for both the party and the country.

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