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The Big Confusion: "Moderates" and "Independents" Are Not the Same Thing

In a recentpiece, David Brooks divided the electorate into liberals, conservatives and independents. This view mistakes a lack of party affiliation for ideological innocence.
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Co-authored by Zeljka Buturovic, PhD

We hear it all the time, "how did he do among independents?"or "she lost among moderates, the independent voters." In a recent New York Times piece, columnist David Brooks divided the electorate into liberals, conservatives, and independents.

This view mistakes a lack of party affiliation for ideological innocence.

For all intents and purposes, moderates are just what they appear to be: an ideological group that is not as liberal as liberals and not as conservative as conservatives. They are a fickle group - read "swing group" - whose policy views can fall anywhere in the wide middle between ideological extremes and make up about 40% of the electorate.

On the other hand, somewhat less than a third of likely voters, who call themselves independents, belong to a group of people who are not affiliated with either party. This is a whole different animal. Almost two thirds of independents are moderates. The rest are either liberals or conservatives, and they are twice as likely to identify themselves as conservative as liberal.

An extreme example of how independence can be different from moderation can be seen in third parties. Rather than a refuge for moderates who are tired of ideological bickering, recent third parties are more ideologically consistent - and many would say more extreme - than the two main parties. It is not a coincidence that Doug Hoffman in the 23 congressional district in New York ended up on a third-party ticket. His party officials chose a moderate-to-liberal Republican to run for an open seat in Congress, yet Hoffman struck a responsive chord among conservative Republicans and also very conservative independents.

Many liberals have gloated about the fact that Republican self-identification is lower than that of Democrats. Curiously, conservative self-identification is far more common than a liberal one. Recent Gallup estimates put it at as high as 2:1 ratio. At the same time, a growing contingent of independents is mysteriously moving to the right. The most plausible explanation is that the Republican Party is leaking some conservatives to independents. This weakens the Republican Party, to be sure, but it also makes it harder for Democrats to win over independents.

In respect to ideology, Democrats are more satisfied with their own party than Republicans. To Democrats, ideology and party are, at this moment in history, largely interchangeable. They might assume that the same is true of Republicans or even conservatives, but it's not.

In our November 4 survey, we asked a pair of questions: "Do you think that the Republican Party is too conservative, or not conservative enough?", and "Do you think that Democratic Party is too liberal, or not liberal enough?."

It turned out that Democrats and Republicans have different views of their respective parties. Only about a third of Democrats think that their party is not liberal enough, with about 22% saying it is too liberal. Democrats appear to be delivering what most of their members want.

The Democratic Party is...

In contrast, almost 60% of Republicans think that their party is not conservative enough, and only 15% think that it is too conservative. In order to meet the wishes of a majority of its members, the Republican Party would need to move a bit to the right.

The Republican Party is...

A lot has been written about the "civil war in the GOP." The soap opera of NY-23 is a case in point, but there will likely be more - in California, Florida, Kentucky and Connecticut Senate primaries to name just a few.

According to the view most often heard from the left, right-wing extremists are trying to hijack the Republican Party by imposing rigid tests of ideological purity. This will, they suggest, make the base of the party so small that it won't be able to appeal to independents.

The problem with this view is not all independents are moderates, and some of them are likely the very people "hijacking" the Republican Party. There exists a real possibility that making the Republican Party more conservative will expand its base by luring some of the independents into the fold. Conservative backlash that forced Dede Scozzafava from the race is essentially a process that tries to bring the Republican Party and its base into an ideological alignment that already exists among Democrats.

Liberals, as well as moderate Republicans urging the move to the middle, are correct that such a change would not come without a cost. The very process of realignment, as NY-23 illustrates, is a political risk. In addition, realigning Republican Party ideology with that of its base can also come at the cost of losing support among moderates.

Some of those moderates are already Democrats, but there also exists a group of moderate independents who will keep hanging in the middle even if all conservative independents became Republicans. They are the ones genuinely upset with the "smallness of our politics" and they are the ones Obama really cannot afford to lose.

John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International, a global polling and market research company. He is the author of The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House, 2008).

Zeljka Buturovic has been a research associate at Zogby International since 2008. She holds a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University.