"Moderates win" and other political myths

By Neil Wollman, Leonard Williams & Abigail A. Fuller


October 7, 1999 | Political researchers and journalists have long assumed that, in any two-party system, candidates should make moderate appeals to the voters.  Should any candidate adopt a more extreme position, the result would be an easy victory for the opposition. 

Remarkably, though the American electorate has presumably been voting for moderation, congressional politics has become ever more partisan and polarized. Despite this paradox, most political observers still believe that candidates who stake out the middle ground automatically win elections: "moderates win; extremists lose."

In this decade, post-election analyses by politicians and the media typically have concluded that the electorate prefers ideological moderates. The 1994 debacle for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, was said to have been a wholesale rejection of big-government liberalism.  Republican House losses in 1996 were interpreted as punishment for the sort of conservative extremism embodied by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Our analysis of the 1994 elections revealed that it was more moderate Democratic incumbents, not liberal ones, who were more likely to lose. And, though the effect was less pronounced, conservative Republican incumbents were less likely to lose in 1996 than were moderate ones.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, then, we found an "extremist advantage" for incumbents running for re-election.

Once again, after last year's elections, political commentators--focusing on key congressional and gubernatorial races--made the voters' preference for moderate candidates the theme of the day.  Yet, even for a year like 1998, when so few incumbents lost, our analysis has shown that ideological extremists of both parties lost their bids for re-election at the same rate as their more moderate colleagues.

As we reconsider the myth of moderation, then, to what extent do variables such as district ideology and marginality affect the thesis of an extremist advantage? Examining 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. (The ideology of incumbents and districts were each classified as conservative, moderately conservative, moderately liberal, or liberal.  The former was based on ratings by the Americans for Democratic Action and the American Conservative Union; the latter on Democratic presidential vote in the district.)

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 moderately liberal district) were no more likely to lose than were those who did match. The one exception to our generalization is that liberal and moderately liberal Democrats did not do as well as conservative and moderately conservative Democrats in conservative districts.

These results refute another political truism, namely, that those who deviate from the ideology of their district will likely lose.  Even though many House incumbents match their districts in ideology, that fit is not the reason for their continued success, since defeated incumbents were just as likely to match their districts as were re-elected ones. (Additional analyses found that ideological match did have an effect upon the percentage of vote an incumbent received, but rarely enough to influence the election outcome).

Still further analyses revealed that while ideological fit seldom matters, party affiliation often does. It may be good to run as a Republican in a conservative (and hence, Republican) district, but what kind of Republican you are ideologically matters little for one's re-election prospects.  Sometimes, however, even party affiliation may not have a strong effect.  This is seen vividly when examining those incumbents who are, in some sense, mismatched--conservative Republicans who ran in liberal (Democratic) districts, and liberal Democrats who ran in conservative districts. Though these situations are limited (13 cases of this sort for the period), such incumbents still won at least 60 percent of the time.

Returning to the issue of moderation, we examined 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 those candidates would do better by staying toward the center in such divided districts. Yet once again, our results refuted the notion of a moderate advantage, at least for Democrats.

In sum, our analysis contradicts the truism that an incumbent's ideology must match that of his or her district and the maxim that, in most cases, an incumbent's best hope for electoral success is to be a centrist. It also casts doubt on the media's mantra that congressional elections in the 1990s mark the triumph of moderation. As our previous work showed, an extremist advantage appears in certain contexts. Though looking at the '90s as a whole and controlling for a district's ideology or marginality weaken the evidence for an extremist advantage, our study still refutes the notion of any moderate advantage.

Election results in the Clinton era suggest that voters have neither sought nor rewarded ideological moderation by their members of Congress. And since there never was a push toward moderation, the lack of bipartisan policymaking is more understandable. Indeed, contrary to today's conventional wisdom, the voters are just as comfortable with those incumbents on either side of the street as with those in the middle of the road, if not more so.  So be wary come November 2000, if pundits again start making generalizations about the death of liberalism, conservatism, or even moderation itself.

Copyright © 1999 Neil Wollman, Leonard Williams and Abigail A. Fuller. All rights reserved.

Neil Wollman, Professor of Psychology; Leonard Williams, Professor of Political Science; and Abigail A. Fuller, Assistant Professor of Sociology, are on the faculty of Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana.

Online Journal Home Bush Special Reports Media Church & State Racism CNP Kangas

Copyright © 1998-2001 Online Journal. All rights reserved.