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

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.

Democrats Republicans Independents
Liberal 47% 0% 13%
Moderate 50% 26% 61%
Conservative 3% 71% 25%
Libertarian 0% 2% 2%

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 23rd 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

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...

Democrats Republicans Independents
Too liberal 22% 91% 62%
Not liberal
32% 2% 11%
46% 8% 27%

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...

Democrats Republicans Independents
Too conservative 80% 15% 41%
Not conservative
5% 58% 26%
Neither/Not sure 15% 27% 33%

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.