They constitute one of the most valuable, overlooked, and misunderstood chunks of the American electorate: the nation’s mythical moderates.
They’re a complicated bunch. They’re often described as swing voters, fickle ideological creatures who exist around the center of the political spectrum. They get conflated with “independent” and “undecided” voters but aren’t exactly the same. They tend to be less politically engaged than their fierce partisan compatriots to their left and right. They’re both accused of not really existing and credited with winning elections for the major parties. And recently, they’re both the reason the Republican Party has been doing so poorly in the Donald Trump era and the reason Democrats should be careful that their winning coalition doesn’t collapse.
But how can “moderates” be behind all of these confusing and seemingly contradictory phenomena? It turns out they are not a monolith. Instead of thinking about them as a single group of voters who have political opinions that average out to the center of the ideological spectrum, I think it’s helpful to look at what academic experts and researchers have found when studying them. And that is, basically, that you should break down moderate Americans into three discrete blocs.
You have true moderates, whose opinions consistently fall around the center of the ideological spectrum. Then there are the moderates who are largely disengaged from politics and hold inconsistent opinions — sometimes, a mix of extreme views from both sides that, when averaged, often give them the false appearance of centrism. And then you have a kind of unicorn, the person who is engaged in politics but similarly has a mix of policy opinions that don’t place them cleanly on the ideological spectrum or in either major US political party.
Understanding these categories is important for anyone who hopes to understand what moderate voters are — and crucial for anyone who hopes to win them over in 2024.
And there are plenty of moderate votes out there to be won. According to surveys of Americans’ ideological beliefs, those who call themselves “moderates” have tended to be a plurality of the American population since at least 1992. In 2022, they were roughly the same size as the segment of Americans calling themselves “conservative” — 35 percent moderate to 36 percent conservative, according to Gallup polling. Self-described “liberals,” meanwhile, trail at 26 percent of American adults, though that number has been trending up over the last 30 years. This breakdown matches a dynamic in American elections: Since at least 2000, liberal voters have been outnumbered by conservatives, and both have been outnumbered by moderate voters.
If trends from the last few decades hold in 2024, moderate voters stand to play a pivotal role in what is likely to be another tight election decided by thin margins. They’ll be key voters for Democrats, who depend on a large backing of moderate voters to win the presidency and key races in battleground states. And they’ll require very different messages and outreach, depending on which kind of moderate they are.
The “true moderates”
A true moderate exists near the center of the spectrum.
This American is the first person you might imagine when you think of a moderate — someone who holds views somewhere to the left of most elected Republicans and to the right of most elected Democrats. This is your “middle-of-the-road” voter, likely to be either a self-described independent or a Democrat or Republican with weak ideological leanings. If you were to ask them their opinion on raising the minimum wage, they’d probably offer up an answer somewhere close to the average figure between what a typical conservative and a typical liberal would prefer, Anthony Fowler, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, told me.
“There are many Americans who would fit that description,” Fowler said. “If you ask them on any given issue, they say, ‘I can see the arguments on both sides, and my preferred policy would be somewhere in the middle.’ There aren’t a lot of politicians that are offering those positions, but lots of voters are in that place.”
Fowler and a team of co-authors have actually studied how often this kind of person comes up in survey data, and it turns out that most moderates fit this description within both parties and outside of the parties. They are more open to compromise than liberals and conservatives and therefore have something of a “moderate disposition” as well, meaning they might identify with a political party but still be receptive to the other side’s case. That also makes them more likely to be swing voters — persuadable in political contests and receptive to specific arguments that specific candidates make.
And this category is a big tent: It includes a range of voters who are willing to break from traditional coalitions, including by defecting from Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It captures loyal Democrats, stressed independents, and disaffected anti-Trump Republicans. Many of the Trump-era shifts among suburban, wealthier, and better educated voters are fueled by these kinds of moderates being more skeptical of a hard-right, pro-Trump pivot in the Republican Party. They are also voters who might disapprove of Biden right now.
The disengaged moderate
This moderate is distinguished by their indifference to and disengagement from politics. Disengaged moderates are the type of person who just doesn’t have strong ideological opinions or awareness of policy and political differences between the parties. They tend to be the kind of person who doesn’t really vote, who doesn’t really keep up with elections, and who might not consume much news media at all. They are frequently counted in the “undecided” or “not sure” category in polls, and they aren’t the primary target of outreach for political campaigns.
When they do engage with politics, there tends to be a big difference from the “true moderates.” While true moderates tend to have opinions concentrated at the midpoint of the political spectrum, these disengaged, low-information Americans often draw their opinions from the left and right extremes. This means that while their views may average out to a centrist position, giving them the appearance of moderation, they are not necessarily moderate on individual issues. They also don’t tend to belong to either major political party (meaning they also might call themselves independents). As Ezra Klein wrote for Vox back in 2015, when you look at these voters’ individual answers to survey questions, “you find a lot of opinions that are well out of the political mainstream … Voters who aren’t as interested in politics and who don’t attach themselves to a party push the ideas they actually like, irrespective of whether they’re popular or could attract 60 votes in the Senate or would be laughed at by policy experts.”
Averaging an extreme right-wing view on immigration and an extreme left-wing view on abortion rights gets you toward the political center — but a person with these positions isn’t the same kind of moderate as the “true moderate” type.
The weird moderate
A final chunk of Americans are a rare breed in America’s political parties. They don’t fit neatly on the ideological spectrum; on the partisan spectrum, they tend to lie outside the political parties. Some academics, like Fowler and his team, call them “idiosyncratic” moderates, but I think “weird” is simpler since it describes just how difficult they are to read.
Unlike disengaged moderates, weird moderates are engaged — aware of political news, policies, and debates — but like disengaged moderates, they hold a mix of opinions. They aren’t really drawing those positions from the ideological extremes, so they tend toward moderation on a variety of issues. Because of the weird mix of ideas they have, they might not feel represented by either party or by a specific conservative or liberal ideology. They also include your classic “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” types who might have been more predominant in the Democratic and Republican parties of less polarized times. They’re not consistently liberal or conservative on all topics and therefore are open to persuasion. They hold the opinions they do have strongly, unlike the true moderate, but feel overlapping pressures when making a decision in the voting booth.
At the “elite” level, your old-school elected conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans could fall in this category — willing to vote on policies in ways that would seem unrecognizable now to the most loyal partisans. Take someone like Sen. Joe Manchin: a moderate Democrat who sometimes sides with Republicans. They are a shrinking part of either political party but can be important swing voters.
Fewer of all these kinds of moderates exist in the parties — and that’s the challenge of 2024.
How will they impact 2024?
Like most elections, the outcome in 2024 will likely be decided by which party, and which candidate, is able to hold on to their liberal and conservative constituencies while winning over as many moderates as possible.
In Fowler’s analysis, it’s been true and weird moderates who have played significant roles in swinging elections: True moderates were the kind most likely to switch their votes between parties between the 2012 and 2016 elections, contributing to Donald Trump’s win. “They’re the ones that are most open to switching parties if the other party does run a particularly compelling candidate,” he said. “The people who voted for Obama in 2012 and for Trump in 2016, those are people who are probably close to the middle ideologically, and maybe they really liked Obama, maybe they didn’t like Hillary Clinton quite as much, and Trump made an effort to try to appeal to them in some way.”
Weird moderates likely make up a smaller share of those vote switchers, but because they don’t feel represented by either side of the ideological or partisan spectrum, they are especially attentive to specific candidate messages and willing to look past party identification. That’s still a relatively small portion of the electorate — most people tend not to switch parties in presidential election years. But, again, shifts at the margins can make all the difference in close contests. And here enters a problem for both parties.
The imperative to persuade true and weird moderates runs counter to the trend of America’s political parties, which have been moving further to the political left and right while also becoming more ideologically consistent internally — pushing out moderates of all kinds. Party leaders have been leading this push, but the rank and file has followed suit in the last two decades, as rates of self-identified moderates have been on the decline in both parties.
Recent electoral trends aren’t too positive for Republicans. They’ve routinely lost moderate voters in elections since Trump’s rise in 2016 — by anywhere from 15 to 30 points in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections, according to exit polls. And Trump’s own brand of conservatism also appears to be less appealing to moderate Republicans in the first two states that have held primary contests so far: In Iowa, he garnered the support of about 20 percent of moderate GOP voters, a drop from his 34 percent showing in 2016 (the last time there were competitive GOP primaries). And in New Hampshire, he won about 25 percent of these moderates, down from 32 percent in 2016.
Democrats face a challenge of their own: Their winning coalition counts on a bigger chunk of various kinds of moderate voters turning out for them than for Republicans. With Biden’s unpopularity and voters’ ongoing mixed sentiment about the economy, stepping up efforts to persuade these voters will be key to keeping that political alliance together — and keeping Trump out of the White House.