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

The independent voter is a myth.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
$618 BILLION IN FUNDING
By a Big Margin, House Passes Defense Bill
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."

Source:
SUCCEEDS UPTON
Walden to Chair Energy and Commerce Committee
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Senators Looking to Limit Deportations Under Trump
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.

Source:
REQUIRES CHANGE IN LAW
Trump Taps Mattis for Defense Secretary
2 days ago
BREAKING

Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.

Source:
MEASURE HEADED TO OBAMA
Senate OKs 10-Year Extension of Iran Sanctions
2 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login