Ideology, extremism not clear-cut

Here’s a puzzle: voters feel ideologically closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party, yet see the GOP as more extreme. 

Our recent survey with North Star Research for USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center (any errors of fact or interpretation here are my responsibility) asked voters to locate themselves and the two parties on a 1-to-7, liberal/conservative scale. The average respondent put himself or herself at 4.44, just slightly right of center. Not surprisingly, most placed Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left, but Democrats were further to the left than Republicans were to the right. The average respondent was more than a full point on the 7-point scale to the left of where they put Republicans, but more than a point and two-thirds to the right of where they placed Democrats.

Looked at differently, 50 percent of voters felt closer ideologically to the GOP, whereas 41 percent were closer to Democrats — a 9-point advantage for Republicans. 

Yet, it’s Republicans who are more likely to be seen as extreme. A CNN/ORC poll in December found 53 percent saying the GOP was “too extreme,” compared to only 37 percent who expressed that view about the Democrats. A February Pew poll, utilizing a different question, had a similar 52 percent calling Republicans “too extreme,” while 39 percent applied that label to Democrats.

Asked about the ideological evolution of the two parties, 58 percent of those who thought the country was more divided said Democrats had become more liberal and Republicans more conservative in equal measure. 

So, voters see Republicans as closer to them ideologically but also as more extreme, and don’t see either party as having become much more ideological than the other in recent years.

What can we learn from these seemingly conflicting signals? A few possibilities:

1. At least for some voters, ideology and extremism are not the same thing. There are voters who feel greater ideological affinity for the GOP while seeing that party as more extreme. “Extreme” could just be a term of opprobrium, which people are more apt to apply to the party they hold in lowest regard — and that is certainly the GOP today. 

2. “Extreme” might be conveyed as much by style as ideology. Republicans are viewed as uncompromising, cold and engaging in excessive brinkmanship. Those perceptions could contribute more to their image of extremism than their ideological proclivities. 

3. Ideology, conceived of as a simple right-left score, might not be meaningful. That voters dislike Republicans while feeling closer to them on that scale might say more about the scale’s obsolescence than about anything else.

4. Democrats should hold their triumphalism in check. Until we can be sure point 3 is true (and I’m not), Republicans still retain a bedrock of sympathy, and we can go too far in alienating the electorate. Despite their current troubles, unless the liberal-conservative continuum has lost all meaning (as per 3 above), the GOP’s 9 percentage point advantage in ideological affinity is a base on which they can build.

5. Words in polls don’t necessarily mean what we think. Few will admit it having read this, but most of us would have thought that the “extreme” party was the one ideologically more distant — but that simply isn’t the case. 

Before leaving this topic, it’s important to note that the relationship between ideology and policy is also tenuous. Lots of policies that Washington sees as liberal are viewed as quite moderate by voters. Indeed, though Americans feel ideologically more in tune with Republicans, they are far more likely to want the GOP to give up on some of its policies than to favor Democrats pulling back.

Barry Goldwater notwithstanding, “extremism” is a vice — it’s just not clear which one.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.