Moderate myths and facts

Myths can exert considerable power, irrespective of their truth value. Accurate or not, by shaping our views of history, they help determine the prescriptions we offer for success. 

It’s not Sisyphus or Oedipus, or even George Washington and the cherry tree, but one political myth making the rounds in Washington today, shaping the advice many offer the current president, revolves around Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC MORE’s successful 1996 reelection campaign. Simply stated, the mythic story is that President Clinton was reelected in important measure because he moved to the right (or at least to the center). 


There is little doubt that Dick Morris, channeling Richard Nixon’s well-worn strategy, urged Clinton to move right and that the president used both pronouncements and policy to tack toward the center as the 1996 campaign unfolded. 

But did it make a difference? Did it affect the outcome? The president’s strategists from that period certainly believe their advice was crucial, but apportioning credit to individual factors in a particular race is always debatable.

Any reasonable analyst, however, should be willing to stipulate that one empirical test is potentially dispositive of the question: If voters did not notice the president’s shift, it could not have been decisive. It is, of course, possible that voters did notice, and it was still not decisive, but it is difficult to argue that the election was determined by a presidential attribute unnoticed by the electorate.

So the first question becomes: Did voters believe Clinton moved rightward? Two separate sets of data speak to the issue, and the answer from both is a straightforward and unambiguous no. Indeed, both suggest that, if anything, Bill Clinton was seen as slightly more liberal heading into the 1996 election than he had been previously.

One of the most widely used data sources in the academic study of elections is the American National Election Studies (ANES), which regularly ask voters to array themselves, and presidential candidates, along a seven-point scale running from extremely liberal (coded as 1) to extremely conservative (coded as 7). In 1992, Bill Clinton’s average rating was 3.19, slightly to the left of center. In 1996, it was imperceptibly farther to the left, at 3.15, not farther to the right. Because the electorate moved to the right, the ideological distance between Clinton and voters was actually a bit greater in 1996 than in 1992.

Those for whom mean scores don’t quite compute might want to consult the simple percentages. In 1992, 54 percent rated Clinton a liberal, compared to 59 percent in 1996 — a 5-point jump. The number calling him moderate or conservative rose by a lesser 3 points.

One data source, even one as prestigious as the ANES, might be dismissed (for no good reason), but the CBS/New York Times poll reveals a nearly identical pattern, though the question wording, and therefore the numbers, are different. By its reckoning, in 1992, 38 percent called Clinton a liberal, which increased to 44 percent in 1994 and then to 47 percent shortly before his reelection. In the data, the number labeling the president a moderate or conservative shrank by 10 points between ’92 and ’96.

Case closed. Voters did not believe Bill Clinton turned toward the center or the right as 1996 approached, and therefore that turn, however real in policy or rhetoric, could not have accounted for his reelection.

None of this should be misconstrued to suggest Democrats do not need to win the moderate vote. 

To emerge victorious, most every Democrat, and certainly Obama, will need to win a substantial majority of moderates. Clinton garnered 61 percent in 1992 and 62 percent in 1996, while Obama picked up a similar 60 percent in 2008. Democrats need moderates to win, but moderates apparently aren’t always impressed by turns to the right.

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.