America's Silent Majority Is Alive and Well—and More Moderate Than Either Party | Opinion

For a while, the 2022 midterm elections looked like they were going to deliver a blowout for the Republican Party. The GOP had national headwinds and historical trends in its sails. And yet, the tide seems to be slowing; Republicans are already resetting expectations, publicly and privately admitting that they may not be able to take control of the Senate in 2022. And Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has an explanation for why: "candidate quality." Put simply, the Republican Party nominated candidates too extreme for voters.

Of course, it's not just a problem for Republicans. On your ballot, you likely have a choice between a Democrat supporting a $15/hour federal minimum wage, a federal law protecting all abortions up to the moment of birth, and trillions of dollars of green energy spending—and a Republican candidate who will vote to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour, want no federal protections for abortions at any time, and exactly zero dollars of green energy spending.

Most Americans just aren't happy with either of those options. Their policy positions are somewhere in the middle.

That's what my coauthors and I found in a recent study, which looked at the large, influential, but often under-appreciated silent majority in American politics: moderates. They are silent in no small part because in political surveys, the public is often not given the opportunity to express its moderate views. Respondents are asked whether they support two trillion dollars of infrastructure spending or not. Then, pollsters, pundits, and scholars write about how divided the public is on infrastructure spending. But what if most people think we should invest in infrastructure, just not two trillion dollars?

Yet that's where most Americans are on most issues: somewhere in the middle.

If we average across multiple survey questions, most Americans appear to be moderate. They give a mix of liberal and conservative answers, depending on the issue and the wording. Some scholars—ironically, it's often the same scholars who argue that Americans are too partisan—have argued that this is evidence that people have unsophisticated, incoherent views. But that's exactly what we'd expect if a lot of people are in the middle.

the silent majority is moderate

We analyzed the responses of hundreds of thousands of Americans to hundreds of binary policy questions. We studied patterns of responses to determine whether their answers were well summarized by a single, Left/Right dimension of political ideology, or whether their preferences were more idiosyncratic. We found that three-quarters of Americans do have coherent views that are well-summarized by a single ideological dimension—but that they were ideologically close to the center. In other words, most Americans are somewhere between center-Left or center-Right—in stark contrast with members of Congress, who are almost all at one of two extreme ideological poles.

Although these moderates are often ignored by campaigns, media, and public discourse, they are electorally important. On average, congressional candidates perform much better when they are more experienced and when they are ideologically more moderate, and virtually all of this is driven by changes in the voting behavior of moderate citizens.

In other words, moderates are a meaningful share of the American electorate, and they largely determine who wins and loses elections.

In another study, instead of asking people whether they support or oppose a particular proposal, my University of Chicago colleague William Howell and I asked people what they wanted on a scale. For example, we asked "What would you like the federal minimum wage to be?" and we allowed people to fill in their preferred number. We found that most people give answers that are more liberal than the views of congressional Republicans but more conservative than those of congressional Democrats.

Even Americans who self-identify as Democrats and Republicans are not as partisan as you might think. In the latter study, we randomly varied the cues that partisans received from their party leaders, and we found that they updated their policy positions in the expected direction, but the magnitude of the effect was often modest. Even more striking, when we gave them cues from a leader from the opposite party, they updated their views in the same direction. In other words, partisans do not naively adopt the position of their party leaders, and they are surprisingly open to being persuaded by leaders of the opposite party.

The American public is not nearly as partisan or polarized as you've been told. Most Americans have sensible, coherent policy views that are somewhere in between those of Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. Candidates who want to win their elections in November should take heed of these findings. The way to win a closely contested race is to appeal to the many voters in the middle.

Anthony Fowler is a Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. His research applies econometric methods for causal inference to questions in political science, with particular emphasis on elections and political representation. He has published more than 30 peer-reviewed scientific papers and a book entitled Thinking Clearly with Data, and he is a co-host of Not Another Politics Podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.