Despite Mitt Romney’s belated October dash toward the political center, moderates have lined up solidly behind President Obama. Centrist voters put Obama over the top in 2008, and they could very well do it again today.
Pew’s final campaign poll shows Obama moving from a dead heat to a three-point lead in the election’s last week. Specifically, he cut Romney’s margins among seniors (from +19 to +9) and padded his lead among women (+13 points) and moderates (+21).
Obama leads Romney 56-25 among moderate voters, close to the 60 percent he won in 2008. Because there are about twice as many conservatives as liberals in the electorate, Democrats have to claim big majorities among moderates to win elections. According to Pew, voters now identify themselves as 43 percent conservative, 32 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal, nearly identical to their ideological profile in 2008.
Although liberals consider themselves the Democratic “base,” there aren’t nearly enough of them to deliver victory. In 2008, half of Obama’s vote came from moderates, while liberals accounted for 37 percent. Republicans need fewer moderates to build majorities, which helps to explain why GOP centrists are a vanishing breed.
There are a couple of important political implications. Pew’s numbers suggest that Republicans have failed to persuade voters that Obama is the off-the-charts liberal or Europe-loving “socialist” of the Tea Party’s febrile imagination. On the contrary, Republicans and their standard bearer may pay a stiff price today for having let feral partisans and far-right ideologues hijack their party.
Last February, in an analysis of the 2012 electoral landscape, I wrote that GOP “intransigence and obstructionism throughout 2011 will make many swing voters reluctant to entrust them with undivided control of the federal government.” If that prediction is born out today, it will mean our electoral system is doing what it should do: punishing parties and candidates that dally with political extremism.
Not once during this election cycle did Romney face down the crazies in his party. And it’s not like he didn’t have plenty of chances to have his own Sister Souljah moment. Birther conspiracists; Michele Bachman’s nutty ideas about Muslim influence in the U.S. government; idiotic declarations by GOP Senate candidates about legitimate rape and ensuing pregnancies blessed by God; vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia – the 2012 election offered a target-rich environment for a candidate who wants to burnish his moderate credentials. Instead, Romney attacked his primary opponents from the right (gobsmacking Rick Perry on immigration, for example) to prove to skeptical Tea Party types how “severely conservative” he really is. Although Romney has spent the last month sounding like the reasonable fellow he probably is, centrist voters haven’t been swayed.
Finally, there’s an implication here for Democrats too. Some liberals yearn for the kind of ideological cohesion Republicans seem to have achieved. Big mistake. That Democrats are a philosophical hybrid – with roughly equally numbers of moderates and liberals and a significant smattering of conservatives – is a strength for the party, not a weakness. It gives them a chance to build a broad, center-left coalition that occupies a political center that Republicans, for now at least, have abandoned.