Fleeing the Center: Why are Moderate Candidates Struggling in 2016 Presidential Election Polls?

In some of the most recent polls for the 2016 Presidential Election, candidates on the extremity of the political spectrum are maintaining their lead in the top spots. This situation is quite a difference from today’s prevalent idea that only moderate candidates are electable. Sure, the fact that more liberal or more conservative leaning candidates are leading in early polls does not mean that they will win the nomination. However, with the primary and caucus dates quickly approaching, the situation looks increasingly difficult for moderate candidates to secure an easy win.

So why are candidates far away from the center, such as Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, making huge gains while more center-leaning candidates face challenges in the polls? Historically, candidates take on more extreme positions during primary/caucus season and then shift to more moderate positions once they have secured the nomination. This is known as “post-primary moderation.” But candidates such as Trump and Sanders do not seem willing to deviate from their ideologies, especially since their platforms are starting very far to the right and left, respectively. Even if they win the nomination and bring themselves closer to the center, based on their current stances, they will most likely end up where moderate candidates stand during primary season, rather than at center-right or center-left positions.

This is not to say that someone like Sanders should not be elected or that only candidates most willing to take on moderate positions later on, such Gov. Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton, should be elected instead. Rather, the difficulty more moderate candidates experience reflects a shift from past trends, one that begs further analysis. Although the rise of more polarizing politicians may stem from electoral redistricting and low voter turnout, a more important reason for polarization may be economic frustration resulting from the financial problems of the past decade.

First though, the effects of gerrymandering and low voter turnout must be considered since both have played a role in getting more partisan politicians elected into office. From 1964 to 2002, a total of 217 new districts were created after redistricting. Researchers looking at a connection between these new districts and U.S. House elections found that “districts that have undergone significant changes as a result of redistricting have become even more polarized.” This indicates that for larger elections, such as presidential elections, candidates must take on far right or far left positions to win these district’s votes in the primaries. Once a candidate wins the primaries, the assumption is that these partisan districts will vote for their party, which means that the candidate only has to appeal to swing state voters, and thus, can move towards the center.

But many of the candidates making strides in both the Republican and Democratic polls, seem to be more extreme than usual, and do not seem willing to take on more moderate positions even if they win. If the more extreme candidates win the primaries due to hardline districts, then there’s a possibility that the next president would not be a moderate by any means.

The same result could possibly occur due to low voter turnout. The current trend of voter participation reveals low turnout for U.S. presidential elections (and even lower for midterm elections). Back in 1960, 63.1 percent of constituents exercised their right to vote. In 2012, that number was 53.6 percent. Not only did turnout decrease, but the starting point was not even that high when compared to other countries, including those without compulsory voting laws or non-enforced compulsory voting laws. While voter turnout has fluctuated over time, it has stayed below 60 percent since 1968.

Interestingly enough, an analysis of the ideologies of presidents since Harry S. Truman has seen the commander in chief become either more liberal or conservative than his party’s predecessor. At the same time, Congress has also been moving away from the center. Obviously, correlation does not equal causation, but the fact that low voter turnout has coincided with slightly more ideological elected officials begs the question: is there is a connection, and if so, is it possible that only the most partisan people are bothering to vote? One survey conducted by the Pew Research Center seems to conclude that this is in fact the case. If this holds true, then perhaps 2016 can become one of the most polarized elections in recent history.

That being said, why would Americans allow for their politics to be taken over by the decisions of partisan voters? If the majority of the population is split between the far left and far right, then this is simply democracy in action. However, the previously mentioned Pew survey indicates that a minority of voters is very far left or right is more likely to vote. Meanwhile, moderate people are more likely to not vote. Certainly, an election between two polarizing candidates would not be truly representative of the people.

Yet again, the people may not care. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that one in 10 Americans are bystanders, or people who are politically disconnected. Furthermore, a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center concluded that many Americans are ignorant about how their government works. Not only do Americans not care about or know about the functions of their government, but many view the government negatively. Overall, only “19% say they trust the federal government to do what is right always or most of the time” and ”57% are frustrated with the federal government [while] 22% are angry.” This frustration and anger seems to translate into voter apathy as 59 percent of non-voters cite similar reasons when asked why they do not vote. So, if Americans do not understand how their government works, do not think the government benefits them, and are politically indifferent, then the low voter turnouts should not be a surprise. This apathy though, is very opportunistic for more ideological candidates. If the majority of Americans are moderate, but decide not to vote due to their indifference, extreme candidates are more able to win elections.

Perhaps, though, there is another reason for the success of these far right and far left candidates, a reason much more representative of the American mindset than redistricting and lagging participation in civic duties: the economy. The youngest voters in the 2016 election were born in 1998 and, along with older voting groups, have had to deal with the Great Recession and its aftermath. Americans are also dealing with include stagnant wages, rising income inequality, out-of-hand student loan debt, declining homeownership, and a younger generation that is more pessimistic about the stock market. Another study suggests that more than half of the country is dissatisfied with the economy and believes that their children will be worse off financially. All of these issues involve finances and suggest frustration with the current economic system.

As stated previously, modern presidential elections usually see a “safe” candidate rise above the others in the primaries and a general election between a moderate candidate of the right and left. Now though, there is a good chance that the ideological trend increasingly found in Congressional elections might permeate into the 2016 presidential race, as researchers suggest that the public may be just as polarized as politicians.

Becoming more radical due to economic concerns is not a new phenomenon. One extreme example is the 1932 election that saw Franklin D. Roosevelt enact the quite-liberal-for- its-time New Deal policies in reaction to the Great Depression. Perhaps something similar is going on today. Voters are frustrated by their economic struggles and are willing to look for candidates who differ from the typical establishment candidate, believing that a more radical president may lead to actual change. The hope is that this change will bring prosperity and ease economic burdens.

If Republican and Democratic voters see politically extreme candidates as the basis for change, then there may not be any change at all. Instead, there could be more gridlock. Consequences of extreme polarization aside, the fact that these far-from-the-center candidates are still doing well this close to the first primaries and caucuses is very significant. Americans are tired and want a change. They are willing to look past the establishment candidates to make that change happen. Will this change happen, and if it does will it be beneficial? Only time will tell. For now though, the 2016 election cycle is increasingly becoming one of the most exciting elections in recent history.