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:
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.