Center? What Center?

The center is never a fixed position to move toward.

By James G. Gimpel
November 13, 2008

In the battle to shape the future of the Republican party, many have suggested a move to the center. In a recent interview, for example, John McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, said, “The Republican party wants to, needs to, be able to represent . . . not only conservatives, but centrists as well. And the party that controls the center is the party that controls the American electorate.”

Also, David Frum wrote that the GOP must move away from its traditional positions on issues such as abortion and the environment, and adopt a style and tone that is “less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That’s a future that leaves little room for Sarah Palin — but the only hope for a Republican recovery.”

The critical assumption here is what political scientists call the “spatial model.” According to the spatial model, there is a continuum running from left to middle to right. Along this horizontal axis are policy preferences with conservative positions anchoring the right, liberal positions anchoring the left, and “moderate” or “centrist” positions in the center. Public opinion is distributed on this continuum such that there is a bulge in the middle, reflecting where most voters are located, with the number of voters shrinking as one moves toward the right- and left-hand sides.

If this is true, adopting policy positions in the middle is the only way to victory — after all, that’s where the bulge is. If we move too far to the right, there are too few voters there, and we wind up with the Goldwater landslide. John McCain’s defeat has also been attributed to his running too far to the right, compared with his opponent.

This seems to make sense. But what if the spatial model is wrong?

For 50 years now, survey research has suggested just that: It is, in fact, wrong, because there is no coherent center. There are no fixed, well-considered policy positions in the center to which voters there adhere.

The research suggests that those who at various times occupy this center, often described as moderates or independents, are not very knowledgeable about or interested in politics. They do not follow campaign coverage closely, are inconsistent in their policy views, and are often not able to identify what positions are liberal or conservative.

What characterizes the centrist voter is not some peculiar set of policy positions, but rather ignorance of policy issues in general, coupled with vague impressions of the “goodness” or “badness” of the times. So-called centrist or moderate voters can’t even be counted on to vote.

Consequently, they make a lousy starting point from which to frame a campaign platform. A campaign doesn’t move toward them, but instead attempts to inspire them to come in the candidate’s direction. The incoherent center moves to the left or to the right, inspired by the candidate’s enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of his supporters. It is foolish for the candidate to move to the center, because the center is never a fixed position to move toward.

Moving centrists toward one’s candidacy is not a process that hinges on taking the right policy stands, either. Instead, it involves the enthusiasm and social contagion that builds around exciting candidates. We know from several volumes of political-science research that less-informed voters commonly substitute someone else’s judgment for their own. That someone else is often a spouse, workmate, or neighbor knowledgeable and enthusiastic about one of the candidates. Support for a candidate spreads through social influence processes.

It is therefore no accident that Sarah Palin’s nomination gave John McCain the only lead that he had during the fall campaign. She was Senator McCain’s only hope for closing the enthusiasm gap, but then economic crisis stalled the gains. Polls will show that Barack Obama had social contagion working in his favor to pull the incoherent center in a leftward direction.

A candidate with Sarah Palin’s views is not the only way to generate enthusiasm and move the incoherent center. But the path to victory is to find a candidate who will pull the center in their direction, not to modify policy stances in hopes of making inattentive and ambivalent voters pay heed. Junk the spatial model. Maybe it ought to be right, but it isn’t.