The publication of a poll conducted by Esquire Magazine and NBC News recently should shake up some current misconceptions. Common wisdom has been that our nation is so politically polarized that there is no middle left. This new poll shoots holes in that line of thought. There is a broad sector of American voters that is still fluid and that mixes and matches and cherry picks among a variety of issues. Even those who identify themselves with one party or another are not bound in chains either. The poll asked people how they feel about certain key issues. About 20 percent on either end of the spectrum are truly bound to one wing or another. The rest are not.
The poll reminded me of a column I wrote in the Nov. 8, 2009, Sky-Hi Daily News, “It’s the middle, stupid.” There is still a middle, but the “old American center” differs from the “New American Center” identified in the NBC/Esquire poll taken only four years later. If this new poll is any indication, the center is alive and well, persuadable, and fluid, but more complex.
A variety of polls show the GOP got more blame for the shutdown than Democrats. A recent Gallup poll found 45 percent of Americans now call themselves independent voters, “the highest number of self-described independents since September 2011.” If that poll reveals anything about the New American Center it is concerns with personal economic well-being that are the ties that binds them this month.
It used to be so simple in the 1960s and 1970s when single issues prevailed. You were identified as a liberal if you were for school integration and a conservative if you were against “forced busing.” Whether you were pro-life or pro-choice was another identifier dominating until recently. The most definitive position that ever tagged someone as liberal or conservative was whether you were a “hawk” in support of the Vietnam War or a “dove.” That 1968 issue nearly destroyed the Democratic party as the Hubert Humphrey hawks duked it out with the Gene McCarthy/George McGovern doves, a split that was not healed until Bill Clinton moderates headed for the center. There is nothing like a Reagan revolution to bring home a fact that being the party of the opposition means little until you could win elections and have the power to control an outcome. The GOP may have to learn that hard lesson, too.
A similar intensity of division is now afflicting the Republican party as one wing seeks to diminish the role of government across the board on all issues, even if it cripples the economy, and the other, who sees supporting business interests as the key to prosperity that lifts all boats. Where both sides do agree is that social and economic inequality, pro-life and other social issues play far less of a role in their political thought than they did two years ago.
The new middle, according to the NBC/Esquire poll, is a mixed bag of policy preferences. It supports gay marriage, paid sick leave, and hiking the federal minimum wage, yet it tilts to the right on the environment and diversity programs and immigration.
The political question then becomes which one of these issues motivates voters to cast a ballot one way or another. Are issue positions only symptoms of something else? Is it gender, culture, geography or personal economic well-being that are the ultimate determining factors? The NBC/Esquire poll revealed little about the latter list. Answering those questions is enough to keep political strategists up at night as they pore over polls yet to come.
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