NBC/Esquire study concludes 51% of Americans are centrists

posted at 10:41 am on October 15, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

We hear a lot about polarization and the fragmentation of the American body politic, but is the middle actually the majority? NBC News and Esquire conducted a survey in August of 2400 adults, and concluded that the wings of the spectrum cover far less ground than commonly believed, while the middle carries 51% of the population. If true, that would recalculate American politics and campaigns.

But that’s a pretty big if:

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It’s the most conventional wisdom in Washington, the unchallenged idea that America is a divided nation, a country ripped into red and blue factions in perpetual conflict. The government shutdown this fall would seem like only the latest evidence of this political civil war. But is the idea of two Americas even true? Not according to a new Esquire-NBC News survey.

At the center of national sentiment there’s no longer a chasm but a common ground where a diverse and growing majority – 51% – is bound by a surprising set of shared ideas.

I’m skeptical right off the bat based on the numbers we’ve seen in elections, and not just presidential elections, either.  Both parties have floors for voter support that extend pretty high above the 20-25% mark.  Barack Obama’s approval ratings would certainly demonstrate that much, as would George Bush’s floor of about 35% in his second term.  Even in state races, at least those reasonably competitive, a blowout win is around 10-15 points, not 30-40.  In centrist-friendly Minnesota, where a third party has major status (Independence), its most successful candidate — Jesse Ventura — didn’t get to 40% of the vote, and subsequent gubernatorial nominees struggle to reach double digits.

So what does this mighty middle believe?

Pluralities believe that the political system is broken (49 percent), and the economy is bad (50 percent) and likely to stay that way a while (41 percent). Majorities fear another 9/11 or Boston-style bombing is likely (70 percent), and that their children’s lives will be more difficult than their own (62 percent), which are either stuck in place or getting worse (84 percent) — while the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else (70 percent).

The new American center has a socially progressive streak, supporting gay marriage (64 percent), the right to an abortion for any reason within the first trimester (63 percent), and legalized marijuana (52 percent). Women, workers and the marginal would also benefit if the center had its way, supporting paid sick leave (62 percent); paid maternity leave (70 percent); tax-subsidized childcare to help women return to work (57 percent); and a federal minimum wage hike to no less than $10 per hour (67 percent).

But the center leans rightward on the environment, capital punishment, and diversity programs. Majorities support offshore drilling (81 percent) and the death penalty (90 percent), and the end of affirmative action in hiring and education (57 percent). Most people in the center believe respect for minority rights has gone overboard, in general, harming the majority in the process (63 percent). And just one in four support immigration reforms that would provide a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.

I’m struck by the finding on abortion in particular.  The NBC/Esquire sample says that 63% support abortion on demand in the first trimester for any reason at all.  Gallup asked the abortion question in May, and came up with a different answer entirely.  Fifty-eight percent said that abortions should either be legal under a few circumstances (38%) or illegal entirely (20%).  Self-styled independents in this survey broke 37% and 22%, respectively, almost identical to the overall result.

In fact, the middle position leaned distinctly pro-life:

Gallup poses a follow-up question of respondents who opt for the middle position — those saying abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances” — asking if it should be legal in most or in only a few circumstances. The responses break nearly 3-1 in favor of the more restrictive policy.

While conservatives won’t like this comparison, the immigration position is another outlier.  Again, Gallup polled on this in June and found a lot more support for that path to citizenship than does this Mighty Middle survey.  That question got nearly a 9:1 response in support of the proposed policy, even among Republicans.

One could argue, of course, that Gallup is throwing outliers and that the NBC/Esquire survey is more accurate.  The difference is that Gallup has been doing its own polls for a very long time and it’s their only business, while NBC and Esquire are media organizations that have other priorities.  If I had to choose between the two for reliability, I’d stick with Gallup.

This doesn’t look like a survey proving the Mighty Middle.  It looks a lot more like a mighty muddle.


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NBC/Esquire study concludes 51% of Americans are centristshave no spine

Sounds about right.

CycloneCDB on October 15, 2013 at 10:46 AM

Esquire? Didn’t that used to be a men’s magazine?

Ward Cleaver on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Esquire? Didn’t that used to be a men’s magazine?

Ward Cleaver on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Now they are running a cable channel of the same name… owned, of course, by NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast.

Take from that what you will.

Myron Falwell on October 15, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Considering the historically low approval ratings of ALL government, this poll is not that surprising. Conservatives aren’t happy with the republican party. Liberals aren’t exactly happy with their party either. This doesn’t exactly mean that America is a centrist nation. It means that the people that supposedly represent them are doing a poor job of it.

Vanbasten on October 15, 2013 at 10:53 AM

NBC/Esquire study concludes 51% of Americans

… know more about dancing with the stars than real life.

Free Indeed on October 15, 2013 at 10:56 AM

This doesn’t look like a survey proving the Mighty Middle. It looks a lot more like a mighty muddle.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in any poll that tries to define a centrist’s views as some sort of monolithic bloc. It really depends on the issue more than anything else. Just look at the so-called moderate Republicans. They may be okay on national security issues or fiscal issues but throw a social issue at them and they become rabid lefties (Peter King, I’m talking about your type of fair weather GOPer).

Happy Nomad on October 15, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Unless you have no opinion on a subject, you arent a centrist. Id like to know how NBC Esquire defines centrist.

Varchild on October 15, 2013 at 10:58 AM

In any case or example it shows the way forward for the GOP – be much more libertarian. One thing is clear from this poll, if it can be believed, people don’t much like government intrusion into their lives.

Tater Salad on October 15, 2013 at 11:00 AM

It all depends on the topic…

mjbrooks3 on October 15, 2013 at 11:00 AM

With no one outside of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul exerting any sense of leadership, how can you blame anyone from being alienated from politics?

The last two people I can think of as being leaders were Reagan and Gingrich. That’s it.

If anyone thinks that anyone else in Washington is any sort of a good leader, they need their heads examined.

Myron Falwell on October 15, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Esquire? Didn’t that used to be a men’s magazine?

Ward Cleaver on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

You left out a word – “gay” men’s magazine.

Tater Salad on October 15, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Women, workers and the marginal would also benefit if the center had its way, supporting paid sick leave (62 percent); paid maternity leave (70 percent); tax-subsidized childcare to help women return to work (57 percent); and a federal minimum wage hike to no less than $10 per hour (67 percent).

Major attributes of a typical European social-democratic welfare state. Did those running the survey make it clear the significantly increased taxes and subsequent loss of discretionary income that would result from the implementation of these progressive policies?

I didn’t think so.

Drained Brain on October 15, 2013 at 11:07 AM

WHat was the methodology?

I can see this being true if you went with registered voters, vrs likely voters.

Snowblind on October 15, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Esquire? Didn’t that used to be a men’s magazine?

Ward Cleaver on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

And NBC used to be a reputable network, what’s your point?

Happy Nomad on October 15, 2013 at 11:10 AM

You can’t be in the middle when faced with 2 choices at the poll.

faraway on October 15, 2013 at 11:10 AM

If I sent the supporters of [forced] paid sick leave; [forced] paid maternity leave; tax-subsidized childcare, and a federal minimum wage hike an annual bill for these perks, would they still support them? Probably not. If other people pay for it…awesome.

WashJeff on October 15, 2013 at 11:12 AM

The NBC/Esquire sample says that 63% support abortion on demand in the first trimester for any reason at all. Gallup asked the abortion question in May, and came up with a different answer entirely. Fifty-eight percent said that abortions should either be legal under a few circumstances (38%) or illegal entirely (20%). Self-styled independents in this survey broke 37% and 22%, respectively, almost identical to the overall result.

This is why Republicans like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock shoot themselves in the foot when they claim that abortion should be illegal even in case of rape. If majorities of around 58 or 59% would ban abortion except in case of rape or incest, such a position would be a political winner. Since only a tiny fraction of abortions are performed on raped women, an abortion ban with an exception for rape would still save the vast majority of babies resulting from consensual sex between unmarried partners where one parent tries to flee the responsibility of raising the child.

While it’s true that it’s not a baby’s fault if its father is a rapist, many women (especially those living in high-crime areas) fear being raped and want the option of aborting a child that was forced on them during a traumatic experience, which leads them to vote against candidates like Akin and Mourdock.

In order to ban abortion in ANY circumstances, pro-lifers need to win elections, and not scare away women who fear being raped, but who would gladly raise a child conceived in love. A proposal to ban abortions except in cases of rape or incest would win elections, and save most of the babies which are now killed under today’s “abortion on demand” and “right to choose” policies.

Steve Z on October 15, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Statistically speaking, the center will always be:
1. In the center,
2. The largest percentage.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be the center.

How wide the center is relies on the poll’s granulation of positions, the fewer questions asked, the more polarized the results. This is why poll aggregators are more successful, they can integrate more data points. What’s Nate Silver doing these days, aside from baseball?

danielreyes on October 15, 2013 at 11:13 AM

49% of Americans have below average intelligence.

faraway on October 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM

More media bombardment prep for 2014…

(…and a warm blanky for the spineless GOPe)

CPT. Charles on October 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Wouldn’t this be by definition?

Blaise on October 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM

By definition centrists are not a unified bloc. As a category they have no inherent overarching philosophy, they just score neutral on an outwardly applied application of generic political positions.

Pro-life vegans would ironically be considered centrist just because pro-lifers “lean right” and vegans “lean left”, even though as a massive recent NRO article pointed out, the combination of those two positions is philosophically coherent. Pro-life vegans are in fact ideologues with a clear worldview, but would be labels “centrist” in this kind of survey.

There is no mighty middle. Most of the people in the middle are followers, not leaders. That is why there is no book called “Great Moderates in History” because the few people you might chart as “moderate” on a political map are clearly ideologues if you look at their actual driving philosophy.

BKennedy on October 15, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Can you hear me now?

Can.I.be.in.the.middle on October 15, 2013 at 11:20 AM

The fact of the matter is that the hyper-partisans suffer from delusions of grandeur from living in their online cocoons.

So, any subject besides why they are right about everything and everyone else is wrong, totally confuses them.

Moesart on October 15, 2013 at 11:24 AM

Can you hear me now?

Can.I.be.in.the.middle on October 15, 2013 at 11:20 AM

No, because you’re a leftist ideologue claiming to be in the middle because you think masking your philosophy is a strategy that will give you more credibility.

Which is very telling. I can at least appreciate principled leftists for their honesty and candor. You are the worst among all political creatures – a duplicitous coward.

BKennedy on October 15, 2013 at 11:26 AM

The middle isn’t as non-ideological as it appears. Few people in the middle are true centrists and the label ‘centrist’ is in the eye of the beholder.

As a libertarian, I disagree with conservatives on many social issues, but that doesn’t mean that I would vote, say, for a Barack Obama-style candidate. I’d likely vote third party or Republican. I think that there are a lot of people that call themselves ‘centrists,’ but are ideologically predisposed to vote either left or right. For example, if you are a ‘centrist’ but very concerned about global cooling global warming climate change climate chaos, for whom are you more likely to vote? If you are a centrist but are ardently pro-life, for whom are you more likely to vote?

If you ask people single issue questions like:

Should the government live within its means?

Should the debt ceiling be raised without any strings attached?

Even most on the Left agree in the polls. Yet, those on the Left are not going to vote for people on the Right.

Resist We Much on October 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Most centrists are actually liberals…

mnjg on October 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM

Sounds too much like a bell curve.

Logus on October 15, 2013 at 11:33 AM

Hey Cantor, Goodlatte, Ryan — can you read???!!!

“And just one in four support immigration reforms that would provide a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.”

DaMav on October 15, 2013 at 11:34 AM

Esquire? Didn’t that used to be a men’s magazine?

Ward Cleaver on October 15, 2013 at 10:48 AM

You left out a word – “gay” men’s magazine.

Tater Salad on October 15, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Is it pronounced Esk-wire, or ‘E’s queer?

slickwillie2001 on October 15, 2013 at 11:35 AM

One could argue, of course, that Gallup is throwing outliers and that the NBC/Esquire survey is more accurate. The difference is that Gallup has been doing its own polls for a very long time and it’s their only business, while NBC and Esquire are media organizations that have other priorities. If I had to choose between the two for reliability, I’d stick with Gallup.

Well, NBC and Esquire didn’t actually conduct the poll, they just sponsored it. The Benenson Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies actually conducted the poll. But I have never heard of the Benenson Strategy Group and don’t really recognize the name of Public Opinion Strategies, so your point remains well taken.

J.S.K. on October 15, 2013 at 11:51 AM

Drained Brain on October 15, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Resist We Much on October 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM

These are both excellent observations.

Really, what the “center” boils down to is a few groups of ideologically distinct people.

1. People with no coherent ideology

These are your would-be social-democrats were you to assign a political philosophy to their stated preferences. They aren’t typically driven by anything but getting their paycheck and taking care of their life, and they don’t really understand the costs of big government intervention. They still hate the IRS, DMV, and pretty much any other government agency that inconveniences them. It really all is about the “I, me, myself” for this group. Mercifully, these people tend not to vote – when they do these are the low-information voters.

2. Libertarians

These people have a coherent ideology, it’s just that from 10,000 feet they have a mix of “liberal” and “conservative” positions that gets them thrown in with the lo-fo centrists. They tend to span in effectiveness from the useless Facebook Legionaires to some of the best activists in the country.

3. Reagan Democrats

These people are sort of the inverse of libertarians, in that they are more socially conservative and less fiscally conservative. They still tend to be center-right, and these are the kind of “centrists” you can break away with the right candidate. They aren’t as politically active as libertarians are generally, at least not at higher levels.

4. Progressive Republicans

The worst enemy of conservative candidates. The most polite way to reference these people is that they are conniving backstabbers who basically fill up R registrations on voter data and are a complete waste of time. The more politically active, the more destructive they are. For whatever reason they sometimes vote for conservative candidates, but usually you have to beat their candidate out in a primary first, or convince them to spread their support either to a conservative candidate or to overextend themselves on multiple campaigns. A challenge to be managed, not a resource to rely on.

BKennedy on October 15, 2013 at 11:58 AM

After 40 years of leftist controlled government schools, 51% of Americans are dumbed down drones. All Hail Big Brother!!!

“There is no underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” ~ H.L. Mencken

SpiderMike on October 15, 2013 at 12:26 PM

No, because you’re a leftist ideologue claiming to be in the middle because you think masking your philosophy is a strategy that will give you more credibility.

Which is very telling. I can at least appreciate principled leftists for their honesty and candor. You are the worst among all political creatures – a duplicitous coward.

BKennedy

Uh no, BKennedy, she actually believes she is a centrist as do most libtards. It is another denial of reality that they all suffer from. I totally agree about principled leftists if you can find any. Kucinich comes to mind, but he’s pretty lonely!

JAM on October 15, 2013 at 12:26 PM

Recently a very liberal professor friend of mine posted a test on FB (20 questions) that told you what political type you were. She laughed and said, “Oh look, I’m a stereotype!” Because the test identified her correctly as extremely liberal bordering on Communist. I, as a conservative took the test and it came out “centrist” leans right. Boy was she shocked! Since I’m the “extremist” in her view and she the centrist!! Cognitive dissonance much? Too funny!

JAM on October 15, 2013 at 12:31 PM

nbc and esquire believe they are centrist. The poll was conducted by 3 hardcore leftists and a bushy. It is meaningless.

peacenprosperity on October 15, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Yep, if you can’t trust Esquire and NBC to tell you what is really going on, who can you trust?

This is even worse than Friday’s made-up NBC/WSJ poll….

As Rush says, these polls are not designed to take the pulse of the public. They’re designed to make news so that the likes of NBC liberal media types can tell us what to believe.

In Plato’s Republic, in the Allegory of the Cave, select members of the community carry statues in front of a fire, projecting shadows on the cave wall for the citizens to see — and take as real.

And that’s what these polls are…nothing but shadows of liberals bankrupt opinions.

EastofEden on October 15, 2013 at 12:38 PM

NBC/Esquire study concludes 51% of Americans are centrists

Keep in mind that, as Bernard Goldberg showed in his books, the news media for the most part defines itself as “middle of the road”. Even the likes of Mike Wallace and Dan Rather at CBS “back in the day”.

Rather defined the New York Times as “middle of the road”. And that was how the NYT defined Arlen Specter, Michael Bloomberg, and even Anthony Weiner until they died, became a Maoist scold, and went bugf**k, respectively. And even then, they only changed their “official” opinions because it was expedient to do so (i.e., they would have lost revenue otherwise).

By the standards of this poll’s originators, Ted Kennedy was a centrist. From which I am forced to conclude that their definition of same includes supporting Communist revolutions worldwide, supporting the IRA and the Palestinians, and wanting to eat gun owners alive with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

In The Only Places That Matter, that may look like centrism. In the real world, it’s a different story entirely.

clear ether

eon

eon on October 15, 2013 at 12:40 PM

Asked to rate all the presidents from 1950-2000 on a scale of 0 to 10, Kennedy scored the highest, at 7.6. He was followed by Ronald Reagan, at 6.9, Dwight Eisenhower, at 6.8, and Bill Clinton, at 6.7. None of the other presidents scored above a 5.0.

Nevertheless, Kennedy would not be Americans’ first choice to bring back as the next president, if any former leader alive or dead could serve again. Asked who they would most want to bring back, 24 percent of adults chose Reagan, 21 percent chose Clinton and 13 percent chose Kennedy. Abraham Lincoln was next, at 9 percent.

The findings, from a survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted this summer, were released Tuesday to coincide with the release of a new book from University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, which takes on evidence of popular conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination and analyzes his lasting legacy.

Resist We Much on October 15, 2013 at 1:03 PM

NBC/Esquire study concludes 51% of Americans are centrists

Which strangely coincides with the percentage of people who have no idea what is going on.

disa on October 15, 2013 at 1:29 PM

I just completed the survey an hour ago. It took about 30 minutes, because I really had to pick my conscience and review and reflect on my core principles. I took the extra time to answer the extra question as well. Turns out, I am a radio talking head follower and I am in the bottom 14% of the population.

I don’t put a lot of stock in any poll, but if this is just 80% accurate, that is a scary thought. I believe I answered as any staunch conservative would when it came to pro-life versus pro-choice. I also answered questions regarding fiscal matters (i.e. taxes, general welfare of the collective society, etc.) and struggled a bit when it came to the welfare of the population as a whole, yet I stuck with my principles and answered as I thought most conservatives would.

If there is a shred of credibility to the poll, then conservatism is losing in the short term. Centrism may be the flavor of the year at this time, but once reality sets in, conservatism will prevail in the long term. The problem is, it may come back only after I witness the destruction of this country and I will be gone before it is resurrected.

metroryder on October 15, 2013 at 1:46 PM

I don’t recall any questions in the survey regarding immigration policy or terrorist activities such as bombing

metroryder on October 15, 2013 at 1:52 PM

That doesn’t mean a thing.

Murphy9 on October 15, 2013 at 2:07 PM

The labels on the site are hilarious. Apparently I am either a “poor, white Southerner” or an Alpha male radio talk show host since I am a Conservative. I am neither. I do live in the South, but I grew up in Chicago. My husband and I would be considered middle to upper middle class, and I am a woman.

melle1228 on October 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM

It says I’m one of the 14% “talk radio heads.” Of course, other R’s tell me I’m a RINO.

Chuckles3 on October 15, 2013 at 3:05 PM

Resist We Much on October 15, 2013 at 1:03 PM

Yep; most of the feelings for Kennedy are based in pity. He was not a very good president and in ways is a lot like the REB.

slickwillie2001 on October 15, 2013 at 3:17 PM

SO much condescension from the far right. Evidently I and my well-educated friends/relatives who abhor both political extremes are stupid, amoral, unprinicipled and lacking in spine.

What a bunch of judgmental jackarses you are. TruCons aren’t nearly as superior as they think they are and live in a very big bubble. Try treating those who don’t share in your “perfection” with a modicum of respect, and perhaps you’ll acquire a little tolerance and humility.

Jeebus, you can’t even let go of the fact that Coulter initially supported Christie–who, much to your chagrin, will likely be the 2016 nominee–or that she enthusiastically supported Romney, who she still (correctly) believes would have been a good POTUS. You can’t forgive Krauthammer for his Mondale years or Peggy Noonan (or anyone else) who voted for Obama but now argues passionately against his presidency.

Hey, St. Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat. But since he is the only conservative to get to the Oval Office in decades, you can conveniently overlook that, right? Because otherwise you rightwingers got nuthin’. Nuthin’ but the sad Rush-Levin delusion that CONSERVATISM ALWAYS WINS!

Are you afraid to venture outside your safe TruCon bubble? Afraid to consider the possibility that people who think differently from you might actually be intelligent, worthwhile human beings?

Talk about lacking in spine!

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

SO much condescension from the far right. Evidently I and my well-educated friends/relatives who abhor both political extremes are stupid, amoral, unprinicipled and lacking in spine.

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

Frankly, my dear, I’d have to give a damn about you to care what you and your ‘well-educated friends/relatives’ think. Since I don’t, you probably should refrain from giving yourself so much weight.

Resist We Much on October 15, 2013 at 3:43 PM

SO much condescension from the far right. Evidently I and my well-educated friends/relatives who abhor both political extremes are stupid, amoral, unprinicipled and lacking in spine.

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

You can complain about the two sides being “stupid” and “amoral” but it’s nonsense on stilts to accuse identified ideologues of being unprincipled or lacking in spine.

Or are you one of those soft-headed people that thinks compromising principles is itself the highest principle one can uphold? And that true spinelessness is the unwillingness to fold on one’s principles for its own sake?

BKennedy on October 15, 2013 at 4:19 PM

Call the orderlies, somebody left the door to Meredith’s padded cell open again.

xblade on October 15, 2013 at 5:03 PM

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

I love how you call out “trucons” for condescension and vitriol when your posts reek of it.

You are full of an inflated self-importance. Anybody who has to tout how “well-educated” they are has some serious self-esteem issues.

melle1228 on October 15, 2013 at 5:10 PM

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

Go to gehenna reprobate.

Murphy9 on October 15, 2013 at 5:21 PM

OK, I think I have satisfied myself that this survey is a piece of garbage.

My views are a mix of left/right views, my rightmost views generally centering on economic issues.

It told me that I was not part of the center, I was part of the 14% “talk radio heads.”

But I noted that a lot of the questions didn’t have to do with my opinions at all — they were about things like my race, income level, degree of political awareness, and personal/religious practices.

So I changed those “identifier” answers and answered all of the OPINION questions exactly the same.

Now it says that I am in the “gospel LEFT.” For offering the SAME opinions.

Basically this survey groups people together by their demographic situations, more than by their opinions. It’s a piece of garbage.

Try it yourself — fill it out twice, reversing your answers to all of the questions about your personal situation/practices and keep your policy opinions the same. Watch how its political typing of you changes.

Chuckles3 on October 16, 2013 at 8:42 AM

SO much condescension from the far right. Evidently I and my well-educated friends/relatives who abhor both political extremes are stupid, amoral, unprinicipled and lacking in spine.

Meredith on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 PM

You forgot lacking self-awareness and recognition of irony.

pannw on October 16, 2013 at 2:36 PM