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May 22, 2014 8:19 AM What’s a Moderate?

By Seth Masket

Last week, I wrote about some of Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal’s research showing that the wealthiest Americans are actually rather moderate in their politics (judging from their donation patterns), especially when compared to the fiercely partisan small donors. Kevin Drum was skeptical that the super-wealthy were all that moderate:

I’m not so sure that wealthy donors are quite as moderate as Masket thinks, since they often have strong views on one or two hobbyhorses that might get drowned out in broad measures of ideological extremism. The Waltons hate unions and Sheldon Adelson is passionate about Israel, but they might be fairly liberal about, say, gay marriage or Social Security reform. But does that make them moderate? If they spend all their money on the stuff they care about and none on the other issues, then no. They’re single-issue extremists.

It’s an interesting point, but it rather begs the question of just what a moderate it. If you donate to some Republicans because you consider yourself a lifelong Republican but to an equal number of Democrats because you like their stances on gay marriage or guns, then, at least as far as your donation patterns show, you’re pretty moderate. Similarly, if you think of yourself as a Democratic voter but you end up voting Republican half the time due to some issues you care about, you just might be a moderate.

Some of our measures get admittedly fuzzy on this subject. Imagine if you tried to assess people’s ideologies using a series of issue questions (abortion, gun control, gay marriage, etc.) and asked people to list their positions on a seven point scale (with 1 the most liberal position and 7 the most conservative), and then averaged the responses. The following scenarios would be observationally equivalent:

    Someone filling out 1s and 7s on equal numbers of questions. e.g.: They really hate abortions and really don’t want anyone owning a gun.
    Someone filling out 4s on every question because they can see both sides of every issue.
    Someone filling out 4s on every question because they don’t understand the questions but don’t want to admit their ignorance.

All of these people would end up with an average of 4, right in the middle of the ideological scale. Which one is the moderate? You could make an argument for any of them. This is a particularly vexing issue in an era where we have two very strong and ideologically polarized political parties. As Mike Wagner has shown, there are plenty of voters who don’t really fit with the parties’ programs, but that doesn’t necessarily make them moderates. We also know that lots of people commonly defined as moderates pay very little attention to politics and are kind of grasping at straws when they’re asked political questions.

This gets confusing when we look at aggregations of people, as well. A state like Colorado has a reputation for being a moderate (purple) state, but what does that really mean? It means that the Denver-Boulder metro area is very liberal and much of the rest of the state is very conservative. Drill down into any of the counties and you’ll find some liberal neighborhoods and some conservative ones. Purple states, counties, and districts aren’t really placid seas of moderation — they’re just averages taken of some pretty ideological clusters of voters.

So, to get back to Drum’s point, yeah, Sheldon Adelson may be pretty conservative on all but a few key issues. Maybe his observed ideal point is a distortion of his views in some way, but that would apply for basically anyone.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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