Why Moderates Lose: The Myth of the Swing Voter
Updated: Mar 3
Too many people think that the American political spectrum has a right and a left, with moderates located in the center of a bell curve acting as swing voters and deciding elections.
People who believe in this false one-dimensional model think political parties can win elections by selecting a "centrist" candidate with a political agenda that is somewhere in between conservative or progressive, because that candidate would have the broadest appeal.
But politics in America doesn't work that way.
The false one-dimensional model cannot explain common electoral outcomes, like the success of extreme right-wing candidates ever (e.g., Trump, McConnell, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan), nor the frequent failure of more moderate candidates (e.g., Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Clinton). Nor does the model explain the success of celebrity candidates (e.g., Governors Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger), who who did not win primarily because of their political ideologies.
The model certainly cannot explain states that simultaneously elect Senators from opposite ends of the spectrum, such as when Minnesota was simultaneously represented in the Senate by socialist Paul Wellstone and right-wing news anchor Rod Grams.
The Republican Party obviously does not believe in the model -- they continue to run extreme rather than moderate candidates, and with great success.
Not only does the model fail to explain common electoral outcomes, it also fails to account for voters who do not fit the model, such as single-issue voters (e.g., Abortion, Gun Control) who have no active ideology at all, and third-party voters like Anarchists who are entirely off the spectrum or Libertarians who occupy inconsistent spots on the spectrum (e.g., Libertarians support civil liberties like a leftist but oppose taxation like a rightist).
The false one-dimensional model was invented in the 1950's, and popularized in the 1980's by Neoliberals who wanted to move the Democratic Party to the right. The Neoliberals argued that most voters -- or at least the most important voters -- were political "centrists," or "moderates," or "swing voters," and so as the Democratic Party receded from the left it would win more elections.
The disastrous electoral result was the opposite, with Democrats suffering steady and increasingly catastrophic losses at all levels of government. The Washington Post shows how, as the Democrats moved to the right, instead of winning more, they lost more, and Republicans took over state governments:
Alternative models do a much better job than the false one-dimensional model at explaining actual electoral behavior.
For example, the prior consensus model was to build winning coalitions based on issue polarities. More recent theorists like George Lakoff suggest that voters mostly do not vote based on issues, but based on psychological attitudes towards governance. For example, voters may respond to politicians based on whether they are perceived more as a nurturing mother or a strong father. Robert Reich has said that the real choice Americans face is not between left and right but between Democracy and Oligarchy. Populist theory predicts that voters will upend the established order when elites are perceived as corrupt, throwing out whichever bums happen to be in control. Rachel Bitecofer's negative polarity theory predicts that voters sometimes are less motivated by their affection for a candidate than by their hatred of the opponent. We'll look at both issue-oriented and psychological models.
Before Democrats embraced the false one-dimensional model, electoral success was long understood as an exercise in building coalitions among groups with different interests. For example, minorities might want civil rights, women might want gender equality, and young people might want to protect the environment. So a platform embracing these three ideals could unite a winning coalition.
There was no pretense that each group was ideologically similar to the others, or even particularly interested in each others' issues. Nor did there need to be a single dimension defining all voters' preferences in order to explain electoral results. If anti-abortion and gun-rights activists shared nothing in common politically or ideologically, that mattered not at all to explain why they both chose the same politician who simultaneously embraced two completely different and unrelated political agendas.
Pro-Life and Pro-Gun aren't aspects of a similar ideology called "conservatism" or "right-wing" -- if anything, they represent opposite inclinations -- one favors government regulation and one opposes it. We only call them "conservative" because the same kind of politician has as a matter of fact embraced both causes.
And that is exactly the problem with this way of thinking. It starts with voters' positions and deduces a false ideology, instead of asking whether ideology is what drives their positions.
A more accurate model of American voting tendencies recognizes that most Americans are not very ideological, but they have specific positions about which they may care deeply. The sum of those positions isn't an ideology -- it's just what they care about.
Animal Rights Activists make a good example. Those who identify as Animal Rights Activists will reliably vote if there is a candidate or initiative with a strong position for or against factory farming, but you can't reliably predict from their affection for animals what they feel about progressive taxation, open borders, school prayer, or the role of the judiciary.
A correct model of American voter preferences will identify a dozen or more issue polarities that may currently be active for a large number of voters.
Over time, these issue polarities change. For example, in the 1990's Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) mobilized large numbers of voters in support of increasing penalties for drunk driving and decreasing the blood alcohol limits, Many candidates were forced to address these issues because of the large number of activated voters. Because their campaign succeeded and is largely complete, few voters today make decisions based on the MADD criteria.
In the 1980's, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign activated large numbers of voters around the issue of nuclear disarmament, and politicians were forced to take a stand on The Freeze and nuclear arms treaties or risk alienating consequential numbers of voters. Today, there are no Freeze voters, and nuclear non-proliferation is not a significant campaign issue (even if it should be).
Further back still, near the start of the 20th century, the Temperance Movement was a polarizing force -- enough to drive politicians to enact (and then repeal) a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Although the sale of alcohol remains heavily regulated, the status quo is stable and there are no significant constituencies activated around returning to Prohibition or further deregulating alcohol sales.
Today, Marijuana Legalization is a new issue polarity that can activate voters on both sides, and to which politicians must respond. But 25 years ago few voters could be activated by this issue, and if the legalization movement finally succeeds, Marijuana Legalization will once again drop from public discussion.
A sampling of the largest issue polarities activating voters today would include:
Pro-Choice versus Anti-Abortion
Public Health Insurance versus Private Health Insurance
Low Taxation versus More Government Services
Gun Rights versus Gun Control
Universal Programs versus Means Testing
Fighting Climate Change versus Energy Status Quo
Immigration Reform versus Closed Borders
Fair Elections versus Freedom to Spend
Criminal Justice Reform versus Aggressive Policing
Free College versus Higher Education Status Quo
There is no particular ideological theme that runs through these issues that correlates to conservatism or progressivism. For example, a voter who was pro-Choice and in favor of More Government Services and Public Health Insurance (traditionally all progressive positions) might still favor Means Testing, Aggressive Policing, and Closed Borders (traditionally conservative positions).
That mix of views doesn't make that person a "moderate" -- they might feel very strongly about their views. More important, someone with a diametrically opposite set of views -- Low Taxation, Anti-Abortion, and Private Health Insurance PLUS Universal Access, Criminal Justice Reform, and Immigration Reform -- would not properly be lumped in as "similarly moderate." They are in fact direct opposites, and will be activated by a completely different set of candidates.
Here is how a multi-polarity political analysis of an individual voter might look:
This voter is highly motivated in favor of gun control and against immigration. The voter has preferences on most of the other issues, but they are either mixed or closer to indifferent. The other issue polarities may come into play if multiple candidates satisfy all of the areas where this voter cares a lot, but otherwise you can pretty reliably expect that this voter will support a candidate who wants to restrict both immigration and gun access, if such a candidate is available.
We can more simply depict this voter as:
The success of Bernie Sanders' campaigns results partly from his successful use of issue polarities to build a coalition of voters. According to PolitiFact, large majorities of Americans favor Bernie's signature proposals: "Among Democrats, single-payer health care receives upwards of 58% support, the Green New Deal gets 86%, a $15 minimum wage gets 84%, tuition-free college gets 76%, student-loan forgiveness gets 79%, breaking up big banks gets 60%, and paid family leave gets 94%."
So Bernie may have assembled a diverse coalition of students, workers, Latinos, and women that looks something like this:
There doesn't have to be, and probably is not, any ideological thread that connects the different groups. The students don't need to care about free child care, and the workers don't need to care about the Green New Deal. And none of them needs to care about other parts of Bernie's platform, like reforming Wall Street, ensuring Gun Safety, or empowering tribal nations. If Bernie is the strongest candidate on the issues they care about most, these voters will follow Bernie even if they don't care about -- or even disagree somewhat -- on other issues where they are more indifferent.
So compared to the false one-dimensional model, the multi-polarity issue model does a dramatically better job explaining observed electoral results, and makes much more sense given that Americans don't have much ideological polarity, and aren't particularly consistent with what ideologies they do have.
But Issue Polarity only explains part of Bernie Sanders' success. And recent theorists suggest that it is the smaller part.
Populism erupts when people conclude that elite controllers of the state or the economy are indifferent to the needs of the people.
George Lakoff asserts in almost every book he has ever written that voter preferences can be explained by the activation of subconscious patterns favoring a nurturing or authoritarian approach to family interactions, which then gets projected onto society as our virtual (and much larger) family.
Robert Reich argues that the choice facing voters isn't so much about right-left ideology but about form of government -- democracy versus oligarchy.
Rachel Bitecofer says that voters are more activated by their animosity toward the political opposition -- e.g., hatred of Trump, hatred of Democrats -- than by any other factor. Therefore, to win elections you need to find voters susceptible of hatred, then stoke that hatred and shepherd that anger to the polls. The Republican Party, obviously, takes this approach as gospel.
The Knight Foundation found, in the largest ever study of America's 100 million eligible non-voters, discovered a wide variety of reasons why some groups of Americans don't go to the polls. Non-voters tend to be less educated, less informed, and less wealthy. They often feel overwhelmed by the conflicting information they get -- the political ads just contradict each other. And in many cases, between multiple jobs, family disruption, and economic distress, they simply are unable to participate.
All of these non-ideological, non-issue-based theories of voter behavior are true to some extent and for some voters.
The "Vote Blue No Matter Who" crowd that extract Democratic loyalty oaths from their Facebook friends are among Rachel Bitecofer's negative-polarity voters, for whom getting rid of Trump is the highest priority and an end in itself.
Populists on both the right and the left are active in response to today's corrupt and money-driven politics. Right-wing populists were activated by Trump's promise to "drain the swamp," and many believe (despite the contrary evidence of cronyism and nepotism) that Trump remains engaged in that project. Perhaps even more Americans on the left are just as angry and believe that Trump and his cabinet of lobbyists and corporate interests ARE the swamp, and these voters are also all about restoring a government responsive to popular demands.
Bernie Sanders' campaign has effectively harnessed many of these psychological forces. Each time Sanders mentions the "millionaires and billionaires" and promises to "take on Wall Street" he is activating populist tendencies, which are amply present in voters who are progressive, conservative, or have no particular ideology.
And every time Bernie Sanders describes Trump as "racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic" and "the most dangerous President in American history" he is activating Rachel Bitecofer's powerful negative polarities.
When Bernie Sanders exhorts his followers to "fight for someone they don't even know," he is activating George Lakoff's nurturing mother family structure, and inspiring participation from voters who recognize that mode of political affiliation.
And when Bernie says that his campaign "has to take on the fossil fuel industry, the drug companies, the insurance companies, and the big banks" he is connecting with voters who think that the election is a choice between oligarchy and democracy.
In other words, Bernie Sanders is an extraordinarily skilled politician who is deploying all of the major issue-based and psychology-based theories to build a broad, motivated coalition of voters who can win elections even in the face of overwhelmingly powerful money and institutional opposition.
My goal in this essay was not to establish that Bernie Sanders was a shrewd politician who knows how to inspire followers and win elections, although that is surely so. My goal was not even to convince you that issue-polarity-coalition-building remains an effective strategy, or that harnessing the power of populist discontent can also lead to electoral success, although these are demonstrably true.
All I wanted to do was to prove once and for all that the one-dimensional right-left model of electoral success, in which candidates must appeal to "moderates" in the center in order to win, is false. The other models, both individually and in combination, not only do a much better job explaining observed results, but they also make more intuitive sense.
The one-dimensional model is inferior to every other available model. Worse, it leads to bad decision-making and failed candidacies. And worst of all, voters are fooled into rejecting their preferred candidate in favor of one they don't like as much who seems more electable, but isn't.