Counsels of Moderation

There they go again


Over much of the 1990s, many political pundits have espoused the notion that the American public seeks moderation in its elected officials. Recently they have based that judgement on the results of a survey released by the Pew Research Center, which claims that Americans have become more centrist, as well as more supportive of government.

Now, some prominent politicians are making similar claims. Noting a slightly rightward shift in the center of gravity for members of their party caucus, some House Democrats believe that centrism is the only way to electoral victory.

This is a very familiar refrain. Throughout the last half of this decade, we have been told that each congressional election has brought us a new crop of pragmatic moderates to government. But each time those "moderates" got down to business, more and more people have complained about how partisan policy making has become. How can we keep electing moderates and still get ever more bitter politics?

The answer can be found by looking at the actual results of congressional elections. For example, many observers saw the 1994 election as a rejection of big-government liberalism. But our analysis revealed that it was the more moderate Democratic incumbents, not the liberal ones, who were more likely to lose their bids for re-election in 1994 (Roll Call, 4/1/96).

After Clinton's re-election in 1996, more than a few commentators saw the election returning American politics to the vital center. Even though more radical Republicans were supposed to have been tossed aside, we found that conservative Republican incumbents were actually less likely to lose in 1996 than were moderate ones (Roll Call, 12/12/96).

And after last year's mid-term elections, the pundits and spin-doctors celebrated yet another "Year of the Moderate." Once again, the claim was that moderates win and ideologues lose. But even in a year like 1998, when few incumbents lost, our analysis showed that ideological extremists of both parties lost their bids for re-election at the same rate as their more moderate colleagues.

Examining the results for House elections in the Clinton years (1992-1998), we asked whether incumbents who won re-election only did so in cases where their political ideology matched that of their districts. In nearly all types of districts, for Republicans and Democrats alike, incumbents who didn't match their district ideology (e.g., a conservative Republican running in a moderate district) were no more likely to lose than were those who did match. These results suggest that one can be ideologically extreme and still win even in a moderate district.

We also looked at electoral outcomes for those incumbents running in moderate districts who were in some jeopardy of losing their seats (so-called "marginal districts," in which the incumbent received less than 55 percent of the vote). Surely, incumbents who moved toward the center in such divided districts would be more likely to win re-election, yet our results belied the notion of any advantage for moderate candidates.

No matter what citizens may claim about their political ideology, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, election results from the Clinton era suggest that voters have neither sought nor rewarded ideological moderation by their members of Congress. And since there never really was a push toward moderation, the lack of bipartisan policymaking is certainly more understandable.

Recently, Rep. Calvin Dooley, D-California, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the only Democrats who can win in marginal or swing districts are moderate ones, the so-called New Democrats. The plain fact of the matter is that both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans can win in such swing districts. Indeed, our studies have shown that from the 1992 through the 1998 elections, only 56 percent of all ideologically moderate districts were represented by moderate incumbents.

We note our findings not only to reassess the past, but also to point toward the future as we enter the important election year of 2000. Beware of pundits and politicians bearing messages of moderation.

Leonard Williams is Professor of Political Science; Neil Wollman is Professor of Psychology; and Abigail A. Fuller is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind.

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