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Mellman: Moderates or extremists?

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Madeline Monroe/Greg Nash

Each of us carries around in our heads some theories about how the world works that animate our broader outlook. We often assume others, or at least others “like us,” share those theories. 

For example, I’ve long thought that, on average, it’s easier for moderates to win general elections (not primaries) than it is for extreme candidates, and I’ve assumed most people enmeshed in politics share that view. 

That’s not to say extremists can’t and don’t win. They clearly do. And, in some cases and places, they have a clear advantage. But, more often than not, in general elections, moderates do better than extreme candidates.  

In fairness to me, this is not some crazy, idiosyncratic notion; it finds clear empirical support in numerous studies.  

Replicating similar results in other research, Stanford’s Andrew Hall found, “When an extremist … wins a ‘coin-flip’ election over a more moderate candidate, the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9–13 percentage points.” 

While some argue the benefits of moderation have declined in recent years, I assumed that most people engaged in the political process would agree with the proposition that moderates have some advantage over extremists (albeit not in primaries). 

So, imagine my surprise after reading a study of local party leaders by David Broockman, also of Stanford, and colleagues. 

They found that county party chairs preferred candidates who were ideologically extreme over moderates. 

Given a choice between a candidate more centrist than their co-partisans and one more extreme than their fellow partisans, local party leaders preferred the more extreme candidate 76 percent of the time.  

The Democratic and Republican parties are asymmetrical in several respects, including the fact that the GOP has historically been a more ideological party.  

Nonetheless, equally shocking was the partisan differential. Local Democratic leaders preferred extreme over centrist candidates by 2 to 1, while local Republicans prefer extreme candidates by 10 to 1. That is, Democratic leaders favored the more extreme candidate 63 percent of the time, while Republicans opted for the extremists 91 percent of the time. A more ideological party indeed. 

This preference is predicated on a very different assumption than mine —county chairs, particularly Republicans,  believe extreme candidates are more likely to win general elections.  

Democratic chairs seemed slightly more likely to judge a moderate more electable than an extreme liberal, but 75 percent of Republicans saw a conservative extremist more electable in a general election than a moderate.  

Republicans seem to believe extremists are more electable in part because they judge them better able to raise money and recruit volunteers than moderates — debatable propositions, at least.  

These data raise two core questions. First, who’s right? Are extreme candidates more electable than moderate ones? 

Here the weight of evidence pushes toward no. It may be that moderates are more electable; it may be there is now no difference. But I’ve seen no credible evidence suggesting that more extreme candidates are more electable than moderate ones (again, in general elections).  

The second question: why are these local party leaders are so out of touch with what appears to be reality?  

First, Republicans’ position is buttressed by their mistaken view that voters are far more conservative than they actually are. Misunderstanding voters’ views leads them to misunderstand which candidates do best with voters. 

Second, and related, it’s conceivable that activists, who the chairs of both parties hear from and deal with most, distort leaders’ views of voters.  

It is also possible that party leadership has been captured by ideological activists whose central goal is not winning elections (as, in theory, party leaders should be) but advancing their ideological agenda.  

Whatever the reason however, local party leadership, particularly on the Republican side, provides a goad to polarization, not a check on it. While party leaders are charged with winning elections, in their view, recruiting and aiding extreme candidates, not moderate ones, is the path to victory.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel. 

Tags 2022 midterm elections extremists moderates political polarization Primary election

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