Since the 2016 election, there has been some discussion over whether President Trump will shift the way Republicans describe themselves when it comes to ideological terms. For those who are arguing that a shift has already begun, one data point being used is a poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal, which showed a drop in those identifying themselves as a “Strong Republican” from 22 percent to 16 percent. As we have argued in the past, these one-dimensional measurements do not really give a complete picture of what is happening among the American people and their relationship to the two main political parties. While some focus on those identifying simply as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, or Conservative, Moderate, and Liberal, we believe that context is needed for the bigger picture.
All the measurements or labels mentioned above are subjective; what might be conservative to one person is moderate to another. And when it comes to party identification, if you say you are an independent but feel the Republican Party is too liberal, are you really “independent?”
Our approach asks respondents not only about their own ideology, but also how they view other individuals or parties. In our most recent national poll, we see that 14 percent of Americans put themselves to the ideological left of the Democratic Party, while 11 percent feel ideologically aligned with the party. These are not exactly stellar numbers, but the GOP fairs no better. Just 17 percent of Americans place themselves to the right of the Republican Party and just nine percent feel they are ideologically aligned with the party.
Interestingly, these numbers have changed since last October. Indeed, five months earlier, 30 percent of Americans felt they were either aligned or to the left of the Democratic Party. Last month, that number dropped to 25 percent. Among Republicans, 22 percent felt aligned or to the right of the party last October and most recently, that number moved up to 26 percent. Those in between the two parties also increased from 17 percent to 21 percent.
This growth in the middle is interesting, but does that mean there are more independent voters out there or are voters just continuing to reject the two party labels that are generally available in this country? To answer this question, we’ve spent the last two years focusing on a cohort of voters that we feel are the key to understanding the true swing voters out there: Moderate Independents.
As the chart above shows, about one in five Americans (21 percent) places their ideology in between that of Congressional Republicans and Democrats. At the same time, a good portion of this group does identify with one of the political parties ― 44 percent consider themselves Republican while 30% say they consider themselves Democratic – but 23 percent of this group identifies as being truly Independent, which translates into five percent of the overall electorate.
The last time we checked in on this group was right before the election; we actually reported that Moderate Independents were on a steady decline, with our October 2016 survey showing that just three percent of the overall electorate fell into this group. Fast forward five months, and that number has rebounded to the same levels we saw in October 2014 and June 2015.
Who are the Moderate Independents?
Most people who consider themselves “Independents” either see themselves ideologically in line with one of the parties in Congress but prefer to think of themselves as Independent, or they use the Independent label but consider themselves to be more liberal or more conservative than the two parties. In contrast, Moderate Independents don’t align themselves with either party and, unlike “extremist Independents,” are centrist in their viewpoints.
This time around, Moderate Independents are mostly white (60 percent) and mostly men (58 percent). While they are also mostly college educated (58 percent), this is a much lower number than we found in 2015, when 71 percent of Moderate Independents had a college degree. Given the small number of respondents who fall into this category, there is certainly a sample size caution when it comes to looking at these changes within the cohort. That being said, they are less white than the adult population as a whole and have a much higher concentration of college degrees.
In terms of generational divides, nearly half of this group (47 percent) consists of Baby Boomers, while about one quarter (24 percent) is Generation X, a slightly smaller portion (23 percent) are Millennials, and just six percent are from the Silent/Greatest generation.
Before and After the Election
Back in October, our national survey showed that overall Independent voters were splitting evenly among the candidates (Clinton 31 percent, Trump 30 percent, 24 percent undecided). Our survey from last month indicates that not much changed, as 33 percent of Independents say they voted for Clinton and 32 percent say they voted for Trump. However, Clinton had a clear advantage among the Moderate Independents, who supported her 46 percent to 27 percent.
Views on Trump’s ideology have mellowed out since the election. Back in October, more than three-quarters of voters “stuck in the middle” (78 percent) say that Trump’s ideology was more conservative than their own, compared to just eight percent who rated their ideology the same as Trump’s, and 10 percent who said Trump’s ideology was more liberal than theirs. Two months into his presidency, just under two-thirds of this group (64 percent) rate Trump as more conservative than them, while 16 percent say their ideology is the same and 11 percent say Trump’s ideology is more liberal than their own.
When we narrow this down to Moderate Independents, we see a similar effect. Back in October, 82 percent of Moderate Independents said that Trump’s ideology was more conservative than their own. Eight percent rated Trump’s ideology the same as theirs, and just two percent said his ideology was more liberal than their own ideology. Five months later, three-quarters (74 percent) of this group say Trump’s ideology is more conservative than their own, while 13 percent say their ideology rates the same and six percent says his ideology is actually more liberal than their own.
Interestingly enough, this does not translate into Moderate Independents believing Trump’s ideology itself has become less conservative. In fact, more Moderate Independents now believe he has a conservative ideology (71 percent) than in October (64 percent). More of this group considered Trump moderate back in October (26 percent) than they did in March (20 percent). In both surveys, just two percent of Moderate Independents consider Trump’s ideology to be liberal.
Current Views on Trump
It seems that Independents as a general group view Trump quite unfavorably; half of those who say their party affiliation is Independent (54 percent) view Trump unfavorably while about one third (35 percent) view him favorably. A similar number in the “stuck in the middle group” (52 percent) view him unfavorably while about two in five (43 percent) view him favorably, and Moderate Independents have the highest unfavorable view of Trump at 56 percent, with 35 percent viewing him favorably. Among this group as a whole, Moderate Independents also voted for Hillary Clinton at the highest rate (46 percent to 27 percent) ― the “stuck in the middle” group as a whole voted for Trump, 43 percent to 38 percent, and Independents preferred Clinton by just one point (33 percent to 32 percent) ― so this all generally follows an expected pattern.
There is little in the data that points to a major shift in how Americans view the two main parties. At the same time, the shift back of the Moderate Independents to pre-2016 levels is interesting and deserves a continued look over the next few years. Although Moderate Independents still make up a relatively small share of the electorate – five percent – the most hotly-contested races in the country have been won or lost by less.
While larger demographic groups such as women and the working class have captured the current attention of pundits and pollsters and they continue to use broad terms such as “independents” and “moderate,” we need to remember that context provides a much deeper understanding of what is really happening. And, as of right now, we are not seeing any major shifts.