Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See "Liberal Demos Favored Over Moderates" in an earlier edition of the Monitor for a similar analysis of 1994 election returns]

Election Analysis Shows Voters Still Hate Moderates

by Leonard Williams and Neil Wollman

Another election, another myth. Before Americans once again swallow the claims of political pundits, let's take a look at what actually happens to incumbents running for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1994, the conventional wisdom regarding that year's Republican sweep was that voters had decisively rejected old-style liberalism. Upon closer analysis, though, more moderate Democratic incumbents were more likely to lose their bids for reelection than were liberal ones, losing nearly 20% more of their races than did liberals.

This effect was even more evident in marginal districts, in which Democrats had won narrowly in 1992, where the gap widened to 27 percentage points. What was true regarding won/loss records was also true with regard to the proportion of votes Democratic incumbents received. Here again, liberals were more successful than moderates. Over the last two House elections, liberal Democratic incumbents have won over 95% of their reelection efforts -- hardly a rejection of their ideology.

"Extreme" Republicans and Democrats beat out moderates
Now that the 1996 election has come and gone, the conventional wisdom for that year was that voters had turned away Republican conservatives because of the extremism associated with Newt Gingrich. In short, the American people are now said to have moved from the rejection of liberals in 1994 to the ejection of extremists in 1996. Once again, the facts don't support this interpretation.

Though less decisively than was the case for liberal Democrats in 1994, conservative Republicans were still more likely to win in 1996 than were their more moderate counterparts.

Indeed, conservatives won a full 95% of their races, outdistancing those more moderate by about 6%. Our analysis also shows that conservative Republicans did better than more moderate ones even in marginal districts (where the incumbent had received less than 55% of the vote in 1994), widening the gap to 13%.

As with the Democratic incumbents in 1994, the more ideologically extreme Republican incumbents also received a higher percentage of the vote than did their more moderate colleagues.

No matter what people may say they want, or what analysts say people want, recent election results suggest that voters have not rewarded ideological moderation
Our statistical analysis correlated political ideology (measured by the ratings produced by the American Conservative Union, the Americans for Democratic Action, and the National Journal) with electoral outcomes (measured by whether or not an incumbent won or lost a bid for reelection, as well as by the percentage of votes an incumbent received). Though percentages differed to some degree among the scales (and thus we averaged them), the same basic results occurred for all three measures.

Those on the extremes were more likely to win than those more in the middle, with the effect exaggerated in marginal districts. For the analysis, incumbents from each party were placed into one of four categories -- conservative, moderate conservative, moderate liberal, and liberal. We then compared liberals with moderate liberals, among Democratic incumbents, and conservatives with moderate conservatives, among Republicans.

Our work has revealed that when Americans reject incumbent members of Congress, they reject moderates more often than they do liberals or conservatives. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, in the competitive arena of marginal districts, ideology becomes more important, not less so. Also, for both election years, for both parties, more moderate incumbents garnered fewer votes than did those on the extremes. The advantage for liberal Democrats in 1994 and 1996 averaged 7.5 percentage points, while for conservative Republicans the average was 2.5.

No matter what people may say they want, or what analysts say people want, recent election results suggest that voters have not rewarded ideological moderation. Moreover, even if the electorate desires bipartisanship, they likely have not picked the best people to bring it about. Contrary to today's conventional wisdom, the voters seem more comfortable with those on either side of the street than with those in the middle of the road.

Leonard Williams, Professor of Political Science, has published work in the areas of political ideology and campaign advertising. Neil Wollman, Professor of Psychology, has written on the application of psychological principles to the political process

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Albion Monitor April 3, 1997 (

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