Taking the Center - Island of Sanity

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Taking the Center

A well known and obvious fact

It is a well-known fact in American politics that candidates must move to the center to win; that candidates at the extreme left or right lose.

Occasionally commentators will say that to win the primaries a candidate must pander to the extremes -- the extreme left for Democrats and the extreme right for Republicans -- but that to win in the general election he must move back to the center. They often discuss how this can be tricky: How do you shift your positions without looking like you're shifting your positions?

This fact is so well-known and widely accepted that no one seems to question it. On the few occasions when I have questioned this principle among politically-active friends, they have not defended the idea or even expressed surprise that I doubted it. Rather, they wondered what I was talking about. It was as if I said that I had been kidnapped by aliens. They waited for me to spring the punch line of the joke, or explain what point I was trying to make with such an outrageous statement. I couldn't possibly really mean anything so incredible.

And yet, this idea is completely wrong. And it is easy to demonstrate that it is completely wrong by simply looking at actual election results.

Look at the evidence

Let's take the most visible elections: presidential elections. Definitions of left and right have changed since the founding of the United States, so starting from George Washington is tricky. For lack of an obvious starting point, I'll beging with the first election in which I was old enough to vote: 1980.

First, let's look at it from the Democrat's point of view.

  • 1980: Jimmy Carter. Extreme liberal. Lost.
  • 1984: Walter Mondale. Extreme liberal. Lost big.
  • 1988: Michael Dukakis. Liberal. Lost.
  • 1992: Bill Clinton. Moderate liberal. Won.
  • 1996: Bill Clinton. Moderate. (He moved toward the center during his first term.) Won.
  • 2000: Al Gore. Liberal, maybe moderate liberal. Narrow loss.
  • 2004: John Kerry. Liberal. Lost.
  • 2008: Barack Obama. Extreme liberal record but ran as moderate liberal. Won.

With the possible exception of Obama, when Democrats ran as liberals, they lost. When they ran as moderates, they won. Well, that seems to confirm the theory.

But now let's look at it from the Republican's point of view.

  • 1980: Ronald Reagan. Extreme conservative. Won.
  • 1984: Ronald Reagan. Proven extreme conservative. Won big.
  • 1988: George Bush I. Moderate but ran on Reagan's conservative coattails. Won.
  • 1992: George Bush I. Proven moderate. Lost.
  • 1996: Bob Dole. Moderate. Lost.
  • 2000: George Bush II. Moderate conservative. Narrow win.
  • 2004: George Bush II. Conservative. Won.
  • 2008: John McCain. Moderate. Lost.

Here we see that when Republicans run as moderates, they lose. When they run as conservatives, they win. Ronald Reagan was the most conservative candidate in my lifetime. He won. John McCain was surely the most moderate Republican. He made a point of working with Democrats. He proudly labeled himself the "maverick" who was not beholden to the right or left. And he lost. This completely contradicts the theory.

(I suppose someone could quibble with my characterizations of which candidates were moderate versus which were more extreme. I confess I am basing this simply on my subjective evaluation of how candidates described themselves and how they were perceived. But surely these characterizations are at least generally correct. No honest poltical analyst would describe Ronald Reagan as other than an extreme conservative, Bill Clinton was very vocal about moving his party to the center and generally pursued very centrist economic policies, etc. Indeed, for our purpose here, an objective evaluation of a candidate's positions would be less relevant than how the candidate was generally perceived by the voters, because we're talking about winning elections, not governing. For example, it seems to me that Bush II's foreign policy and positions on social issues were conservative but his economics were clearly liberal. Remember "compassionate conservative"? I would therefore call him a moderate, but he was clearly perceived as a conservative, especially in the 2004 election.)

Making sense of it

Can we make any sense of this? Democrats win when they move toward the center and lose when they move to the extremes. But Republicans win when they move toward the extremes and lose when they move toward the center. Is there any pattern to this?

Of course there is, just state it another way: Democrats lose when they stay on the left and win when they move to the right. Republicans win when they stay on the right and lose when they move to the left. That is, candidates from either party tend to win when they move right and lose when they move left. The secret to winning an election in America is not to move to the center, but to move to the right.

It may be that there's some point so far to the right that it would be a loser. Some truly extreme, fanatical right-wing position. Like, say, Ronald Reagan. Oh, wait, but he won the biggest landslide in American political history.

© 2008 by Jay Johansen


Karla Jul 23, 2014

I think if the Tories came that close to a majority that would pbrbaoly be able to get one from there. All they would have to do is a bribe a few opposition members to cross the floor and promise them cabinet posts and if that doesn't work, give some patronate appointments to those in ridings they nearly won as the Tories have the most motivated base so they tend to perform better in by-elections than general elections. Also there is the Independent factor. If Andre Arthur, Helena Guergis, or James Ford get elected, the Tories could pbrbaoly count on their votes or if needed ask them to join their caucus. As for the coalition, the Liberals are not stupid enough to try it again unless the election is really close. If the Tories won by only 10 seats then it might happen, but otherwise I doubt it will happen despite what some are saying.

freedomlover Jul 11, 2015

Your theory -- "right wins" -- doesn't work. Obama beat both McCain and Romney, but Obama was clearly left of either. Clinton was left of Dole but he won. etc.

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