Science Says NBC’s Hope for the ‘American Center’ Is Wrong

The independent voter is a myth.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Oct. 16, 2013, 9:08 a.m.

In the dark­ness of shut­down, brinks­man­ship, and de­fault, NBC News and Es­quire think they’ve found the last great hope for Amer­ic­an polit­ics — The Cen­ter.

The in­de­pend­ent voter is a myth, at least as far as the sci­ence is con­cerned.

Everything we know about polit­ics is wrong and Amer­ica isn’t hope­lessly di­vided is the gush­ingly op­tim­ist­ic con­clu­sion of their widely pub­li­cized (and cri­ti­cized) poll re­leased Tues­day. “Em­an­at­ing strongly from this rich and com­plex set of data from which the most com­plete and use­ful por­trait of the new Amer­ic­an Cen­ter has emerged comes this theme, ex­pressed in a dozen dif­fer­ent ways: a de­mand for the clas­sic Amer­ic­an no­tion of fair­ness,” ac­cord­ing to Es­quire.

The sur­vey draws a circle around four groups of Amer­ic­ans, out of eight, it has de­term­ined to be in the middle (they are the vaguely titled “minivan mod­er­ates,” “MBA middle,” “Pick-up Pop­u­lists,” and the “Whatever Man”). When join­ing these groups to­geth­er, the poll finds ma­jor­it­ies or near ma­jor­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans agree on fuzzy con­cepts such as “the polit­ic­al sys­tem is broken” and “the eco­nomy is bad,” as well as on more spe­cif­ic is­sues, such as sup­port­ing gay mar­riage and leg­al­iz­ing pot.

But un­der scru­tiny, the cen­ter doesn’t hold. These four cen­ter groups don’t agree uni­formly. What does it mean when only a plur­al­ity with­in four of NBC/Es­quire‘s eight polit­ic­al groups agree on something? For in­stance, there is a 16-point spread between cen­ter groups on the role of gov­ern­ment in in­di­vidu­al lives — per­haps the most fun­da­ment­al ques­tion pos­sible.

But nit­pick­ing at the meth­od­o­logy of the poll and its premise misses a big­ger point: Of course there is a cen­ter — ideas a simple ma­jor­ity will agree to — but that doesn’t mean Amer­ica isn’t firmly sor­ted in­to polit­ic­al camps.

And here’s why: The in­de­pend­ent voter is a myth, at least as far as the sci­ence is con­cerned.

“The folks who we see as in­de­pend­ent, we think of them as closet par­tis­ans who act in al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able ways to those who identi­fy as par­tis­ans,” Brendan Nyhan, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Dart­mouth, told me a few weeks ago.

Re­cent re­search in the Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­cho­logy Bul­let­in il­lus­trates this idea. In the study, the re­search­ers em­ployed what’s called an “Im­pli­cit As­so­ci­ation Test,” which ma­nip­u­lates re­spond­ents to in­dic­at­ing what they really be­lieve, or are oth­er­wise un­will­ing to ad­mit due to so­cial pres­sures. For ex­ample, a smoker might not ad­mit how many packs he smokes a day be­cause smoking a lot isn’t so­cially de­sir­able. You have to probe their brain a bit deep­er.

How this works is kind of com­plic­ated, but ba­sic­ally im­pli­cit as­so­ci­ation tests wheth­er you have a ba­sic neg­at­ive or pos­it­ive at­ti­tude to­ward a state­ment. For in­stance, a phrase like “Full Medi­caid Cov­er­age” will be presen­ted with an­oth­er concept like “good” or “agony.” If “medi­caid” and “good” are an as­so­ci­ation in your mind, you’ll re­spond to the prompt slightly faster, be­cause that as­so­ci­ation is easi­er for your mind to pro­cess. Crazy stuff.

Those who were im­pli­citly Demo­crat ten­ded to side with Demo­crat­ic is­sues. Same goes for the im­pli­cit Re­pub­lic­ans. “In their vot­ing pat­terns, in­de­pend­ent lean­ers are al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from their re­spect­ive par­tis­an blocs, even though they de­cline to identi­fy as party mem­bers,” the au­thors write.

So most of us, wheth­er we ad­mit it or not, have a polit­ic­al pref­er­ence. And here’s an­oth­er reas­on why the NBC/Es­quire premise is flawed: What mat­ters most, in terms of pre­dict­ing polit­ic­al be­ha­vi­or, is how people view them­selves — and not what they ac­tu­ally be­lieve on in­di­vidu­al is­sues.

For in­stance, re­search­ers at the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina found that col­lege-age par­ti­cipants over­state their con­ser­vat­ive­ness. That is, when asked about their polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion they in­dic­ate one thing, but then on spe­cif­ic policy ques­tions, they move to the left. “Self-re­por­ted polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion was sig­ni­fic­antly more con­ser­vat­ive than polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion scores as­signed to sub­jects us­ing a more ob­ject­ive pro­cess,” the pa­per con­cludes. The re­search sug­gests there is stronger in-group pres­sure for con­ser­vat­ives to stick with the con­ser­vat­ive la­bel, even when their be­liefs would lead them else­where.

So, yes, these re­spond­ents are in the cen­ter (lean­ing to­ward the middle while main­tain­ing a foot on a con­ser­vat­ive base). And yes, that does give cre­dence to the idea that Amer­ic­ans aren’t so di­vided. But here’s the cru­cial part: That doesn’t mean they’ll change their polit­ic­al be­ha­vi­or. “Biased self-per­cep­tion,” the au­thors write, “pre­dicted vot­ing be­ha­vi­or in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion even after con­trolling for ob­ject­ive polit­ic­al-ori­ent­a­tion scores.” So it doesn’t really mat­ter what they be­lieve, the au­thors are con­clud­ing. Sort­ing people by shared be­lief is a failed ex­er­cise.

There are some voters who are truly in the middle, Nyhan says, but they are usu­ally the least en­gaged in the polit­ic­al sys­tem, and are usu­ally the least know­ledge­able about it. “So the know­ledge­able folks, the ones who fol­low polit­ics the most closely, end up ac­quir­ing a set of be­liefs and come to sup­port one side or the oth­er.”

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