How liberal is the American Heartland? It depends...

Kent R. Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant who has measured and analyzed public opinion for public and private sector clients for more than 30 years. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The American Heartland is not as conservative as some Republicans want you to believe, nor is it as liberal as some Democrats would prefer.

Like the nation writ large, the American Heartland is dominated by centrists who make up nearly half of the vote-eligible population.

That conclusion is based on my analysis of the recently released 2016-17 American National Election Study (ANES), which is a nationally-representative election study fielded every two years by Stanford University and The University of Michigan and is available here.

Across a wide-array of issues, most Heartland vote-eligible adults do not consistently agree with liberals or conservatives. They are, as their group’s label suggests, smack dab in the middle of the electorate.

However, on the issues most important to national voters in 2016 — the economy, jobs, national security, and immigration — there is a conservative skew in the opinions of the Heartland. The Iowa Democratic Party, as well as the national party, must recognize this reality as they try to translate the energy of the “resistance” into favorable and durable election outcomes in 2018.

For some Democrats in the American Rust Belt and Heartland, there is a palpable amount of skepticism about the “resistance” and its ability to help the Democrats in the next election.

“We have a new energy, but we don’t have a new brand,” said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan in a recent interview with Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti. “I would think that if the Democratic Party had a halfway decent national brand or an exciting, affirmative agenda, that we would have been able to get at least a couple more percentage points in the Georgia [special election] last week.”

This is not the same as saying the Democrats can’t win most elections in the Heartland. The good news for Democrats is: issues alone don’t drive election outcomes. Voter-level factors include: a voter’s party identification, education, ethnicity, and economic optimism; candidate-level factors include charisma, incumbency status, advertising and media coverage; and systemic factors include presidential approval and the state of the economy.

But issues are still an election’s common currency used to mobilize voters, attract donors, and drive campaign news coverage. On a strategic level, issues define a party’s “center of gravity.” Military strategists define an opponent’s “center of gravity” (COG) as their source of power that gives them the moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act. With all due respect to Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian general that coined the term, I define a political opponent’s COG as their source of strength that maximizes their electoral success, allows tactical flexibility for its candidates, and maintains its bases’ enthusiasm.

What?

Think of a political party’s COG as its menu of issues that gets their base excited, gives the party maximum attractiveness to general election voters, and allows its candidates to make tactical adjustments based on their constituency’s issue preferences. Using this definition, it becomes critical to understand the policy preferences not only of a political party’s base, but also those voters that share some of the policy preferences of both the Left (Democrats) and the Right (Republicans). This latter group I call “the Middle” or otherwise known as centrists.

This will be clearer as we look at the ANES 2016 data, which is based on 3,649 national respondents and a sub-sample of 514 respondents from the Heartland states.

As a first step in the data analysis, I wanted to focus on the Iowa respondents. However, there were only 27 respondents from Iowa in the ANES 2016 survey. Therefore, I focused on the 514 respondents from the Heartland states: Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin. This definition corresponds to The University of Iowa’s former Heartland Survey that ceased in the late-1990s and provided me with enough respondents to meaningfully analyze the Heartland sample.

After clustering the 3,649 respondents by their responses to over 100 issues questions in the ANES, I segregated the respondents into three exclusive groups: liberals, centrists, and conservatives (the data and computer algorithms can be provided upon an email request to: info@olsonkroeger.com). Figure 1 below shows the ideological composition of both the Heartland and non-Heartland samples:

The centrists dominate in both the Heartland and non-Heartland states — or as I call them: the ideologically promiscuous. You may be or know one. For example, I know a protestant minister that’s a pro-life socialist; I know a pro-choice evangelical. They exist.

Politicians and opinion journalists may be polarized. The people that spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter promoting the #MAGA or #ImStillWithHer hashtags may be polarized. But not the average person in the Heartland (or the nation). This is good news if you want future Iowa elections to be competitive. As grim as it may seem to them today, Iowa Democrats are never more than two election cycles away from regaining control of the state’s U.S. congressional seats, the state legislature and the governor’s seat. Add in each election’s new (usually young) voters that in most recent elections have been aligned with the Democrats’ priorities and there is even more reason for Iowa Democrats to be optimistic.

The non-ideological quality of the electorate is well-documented in academic research. The American Voter, authored in 1960 by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes, found a similar American electorate. In their study, most Americans were in the ideological center, often holding contradictory opinions when compared to more ideologically consistent partisans. The American Voter’s oft-cited finding that politics is just not that important to Americans still holds up today and helps explain why ideological purity matters more to political partisans and journalists than it does to average voters.

In 2014, writing in response to a Pew Research Center report on the polarization of the American electorate, Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina concluded, “The country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” Citing the General Social Survey among other data sources, Fiorina argued that, “with occasional small exceptions, moderate remains the modal category today just as it was in the days of Jimmy Carter.”

Figure 2 below shows where each of the three ideological groups are located on an agreement/disagreement scale for a selection of issues items on the ANES 2016 (Note: A value of zero equals the average opinion on that item across all nationwide respondents). The data in Figure 2 is for all vote-eligible Americans, but the results are similar for the Heartland sub-sample (and is available upon request).

Figure 2: OPINIONS OF VOTE-ELIGIBLE AMERICANS BY IDEOLOGICAL GROUP
(Source: 2016 American National Election Survey)

HOW TO READ FIGURE 2: Let us look at the first issue in Figure 2 – Favorability towards free trade agreements. The Right has a score of -0.26, which indicates, on average, someone on the Right disagrees with the idea of free trade agreements. The Middle has an average score slightly above zero (0.1), indicating there is no clear preference among centrists. The Left has an average score of 0.3, indicating, on average, they support free trade agreements.

If I am the political party on the Left (Democrats), I want the Middle to be as close to my base as possible. Take a look at the 7th issue from the top in Figure 2 (Global Warming is Real). The is very little difference in opinion on this issue between the Middle and the Left. Most agree that global warming is real. When you add in the other environmental issues in Figure 2, the Middle is always closer to the Left’s position than the Right’s. The environment is part of the national Democratic Party’s COG.

In contrast, immigration is part of the Republican Party’s COG.

Overall, the results in Figure 2 represent a good news/bad news story for national and Heartland Democrats. The good new is, despite recent electoral losses, the Democrats are still competitive with the Republicans. Most often, the “Middle” (aka. centrists) are halfway between the Left and the Right. Examples include: favorability towards free trade agreements, supporting protections for transgender individuals, favorability towards equal pay legislation, belief that immigration takes away jobs, and favorability towards Muslims. On issues like these, the Left (mostly Democrats) is still competing with the Right for the support of the center.

But it is those cases where the center (“Middle”) is closer to the Left or the Right that are most interesting, for on these issues, the Left or Right are winning the debate – at least if you measure “winning” as having the support of the majority.

Figure 3 shows the those issues where the Center is most aligned with one of the two ideological extremes, among the 514 Heartland respondents to the ANES 2016.

The best case scenario for either party (or ideological group) is that the Center aligns with them on issues that are most important to voters and where the two ideological viewpoints are relativity far apart (aka. ideological differentiation). There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. Hopefully, Figure 3 brings some clarity.

Look at the first entry in Figure 3: Support marriage equality. In the Heartland, the Left and Right are far apart (differentiated) in their opinions on marriage equality. That is, it is clear where the two ideological extremes stand on this issue. The Right opposes and the Left supports.

However, the Center is closer to the Left than the Right on this issue (Alignment with Center Index = 0.74, where values greater or less than 0.40 are statistically significant). If ‘marriage equality’ was a driving force in vote decisions, that would be a clear advantage to the Democrats. It would be part of the Democrats’ COG.

By most accounts, marriage equality was not a vote-driving issue in 2016 and it is not part of the Democratic Party’s COG.

Instead, look at the last entry in Figure 3: Opposition to birthright citizenship. On this issue, the Left and Right are far apart and the Center is aligned with the Right (ACI = -0.68). As we will see in Figure 4 below, immigration was one of the most important issues in 2016. Based on my analysis, the Republicans (and the Right) scored a home-run on that issue. The Left lost the argument and the Center aligned with the Right.

I have seen no empirical evidence to support the argument that Russian interference was decisive in the 2016 election. It may have been, but nobody has proven it. In the ANES 2016 data, however, we now have hard evidence that, in addition to immigration, Heartland Democrats were at a disadvantage on issues related to the role of government, health care, and, to a lesser extent, the economy. That’s not a list of issues I’d want to lose centrist support on at election time. The Democrats must do better.

That’s the bad news. There is good news for Heartland Democrats and it may be surprising to some. According to the ANES 2016 survey — whose interviews were collected between Oct. 2016 and January 2017 — the Left holds a clear advantage on issues related to civil rights, the environment and NATIONAL SECURITY (!). Let that sink in. The Center, on average, is more likely to agree with the Left on questions such as: “Should I be personally worried about a terrorist attack in the next 12 months?” (No, say the majority); “Should U.S. foreign policy be less aligned with Israel?” (Yes, say the majority); and “Should our country adjust to a changing world?” (Yes, say the majority).

Framing U.S. defense and foreign policy on those elements, the Democrats are in the majority and have a potential COG. Though, it is unlikely those issues are critical to local and state races.

What is clear in Figure 3 is that, in the Heartland, the Democrats own the civil rights brand. The Center has aligned with the Democrats on marriage equality, acceptance of non-Christian religions, tolerance of other moral standards, and supporting LGBTQ rights. The same is true on the environment. Most Heartlanders (and Americans) believe global warming is real. It is fair to say there is a Heartland consensus on those opinions and it favors the Left.

But do these issues that favor the Left drive vote outcomes?

Figure 4 below shows the Gallup Poll’s most recent findings on the most important issues according to Americans (April 2017). Our political leadership does not fare well as they are the biggest concern of Americans. And the ‘they’ is probably just one person – Donald Trump. The bigger question, however, is whether a widespread distrust of our newest president translate into electoral gains for the Democrats.

The other big problems, according to the Gallup Poll, are the economy, immigration and health care. Those issues will possibly be the battleground issues in 2018.

In its totality, the ANES 2016 leaves with me the impression that we do not live in a highly-polarized country, despite what the media tells us. That said, the Heartland and Iowa Democrats face a stronger headwind than Republicans at election time. The factory-setting of Heartland voters does slant to the Right, not by a lot, but by enough that Republicans should feel confident in their strategic position even if the current political environment does not look as favorable.

Over time, attitudes often regress to the mean and right now the mean opinion favors the Right on the issues most important at election time.

What can Heartland Democrats do to regain the strategic high ground from the Republicans?

Former U.S Congressman Dave Nagle once spoke at a University of Iowa class where I was the teaching assistant. I’ll always remember something he said about how political parties should approach issues where they are out-of-step with public opinion. He said, “A party can do one of three things: Move the party towards the people, move the people towards the party, or change the subject.”

Guess how elections are fought in this country? Exactly. Both parties emphasize the issues where they hold the perceived edge. The marginal returns are small in trying to persuade the public to see your party or candidate’s point of view. The art of persuasion is dead in this country. Thank you, Fox News, MSNBC, Twitter and Facebook.

Elections instead have become exercises in voter mobilization. Get out your vote and make it harder for your opposition to do the same.

The ANES 2016 shows why the Democrats struggle win most elections in the Heartland. They are out of alignment with the average person on many key issues: immigration, family values, government deficits, economic regulation, and the role of government, particularly with respect to our health care system. That is what Rep. Ryan is calling the “Democratic brand’ problem. The problem is that changing a brand requires a lot of time. The current Democratic brand was forged during the Great Depression and remains pretty much intact through today. Brand changes take time (i.e., years, even decades) and the Democrats don’t have time – not if they want to reverse the legislative damage being done right now by the Republican majority.

Yet, the ANES 2016 also shows the Democrats a path to victory. A path not nearly as narrow as the one Trump needed to win the presidency. Heartland Democrats are in the majority when they talk about protecting civil liberties and the environment, promoting tolerance, holding economic elites accountable and lessening economic inequalities.

The problem Democrats face is making those issues electoral winners. That is a framing issue and the ANES 2016 begins to show the Democrats a number of ways they can do that. But the Democrats must also shed some baggage from the Clinton and Obama years that hurts the party.

The following are three concrete steps Heartland Democrats can start making to ensure electoral success in 2018 and beyond:

First, not just allow, but encourage more ideological heretics and outsiders to run as Democratic candidates. Lose the purity tests that serve little purpose but to allow the Republicans and the Right to characterize the Democrats as extremists. In the past week we have witnessed the needless mistreatment of Democratic Omaha mayoral candidate, Heath Mello, by the Democratic establishment (DNC, etc.) because of his nuanced view on abortion. Bernie Sanders may be the far left of the Democratic Party, but at least he has the maturity and strategic vision to enthusiastically endorse Mello, who is a centrist Democrat. In the grand scheme of things, abortion — on which there is nearly a national consensus in its support — is not as important as reducing economic inequalities and promoting opportunity. If you think it is, you are hurting the Democratic Party and putting abortion rights at greater risk than Heath Mello ever will.

Embrace ideological flexibility at the candidate-level, even as the DNC will continue to promote a more rigid, ideological platform.

Second, stop treating voters like cattle. I must have heard it a hundred times from Democratic operatives in this past election that “if we can get our voters to turnout, we win.” That wasn’t true in 2016 and won’t be true in the future. The Democrats’ get-out-the-vote obsession is at the heart of identity politics. As a statistician, I can understand putting voters into discrete little identity boxes. In the aggregate, the vote propensities often support this approach. The economics don’t support the Democrats spending money trying to mobilize rural, working-class men. I get it. But, on a personal level, it can make people with the “wrong” identity feel unwelcome in the Democratic Party.

Democrats, you are not winning enough elections to have the luxury of ignoring large swaths of the American electorate — become as inclusive as you think you are.

Third, sit back and relax as the governing party, the Republicans, do more damage to themselves than any Democratic strategy could ever induce. For every Republican misstep, we don’t need an accompanying news conference from the Democrats. Allow the missteps to occur organically. When you constantly snipe after every unfounded fact spoken by Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, or Kellyanne Conway, you run the risk of creating a level of sympathy for them that they don’t deserve. The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky affair is the most vivid example of how that dynamic works. Americans get angry when they think people are being treated unfairly — particularly by the press. Don’t let Donald Trump get the same benefit.

Though the analysis here doesn’t provide an answer, there is every reason to believe, with the right message, the Heartland Democrats can attract more centrists on the vote-driving issues (the economy, the size of government, security and immigration). As of today, according to Nate Silver, the Republicans are facing an electoral bloodbath in 2018. A lot can change between now and then.

Furthermore, there are issues such as the environment, civil rights, and economic fairness where the Democrats hold a clear advantage. This gives Heartland Democrats a strong incentive to make these issues pivotal in voters’ minds heading into the next election. But neural pathways don’t change overnight and require consistent reinforcement to make a meaningful difference in how people vote. I will assume the DNC and the state parties are well down the research path in finding the optimal messages and communication modes to bring Democrat-favoring issues to the forefront of the next election.

Lastly, it is imprudent to look at today’s political landscape and assume conditions will stay favorable to the Democrats in the next two years. Regardless of where the economy and the Trump administration go from here, centrists will decide who wins in 2018. They have in the past and will in the future.

The Democratic leadership therefore needs to go beyond talking about outreach and inclusiveness and actually start engaging the centrist voters who are our country’s political center-of-gravity — and do this without compromising the Democrats’ core values and diminishing the enthusiasm of the party’s base. Good luck.

About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 years of experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY). He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

  • I really, really hope it's true...

    …referring to this: “I will assume the DNC and the state parties are well down the research path in finding the optimal messages and communication modes to bring Democrat-favoring issues to the forefront of the next election.”

    Meanwhile, a friend said that on NPR, there was talk about how Iowa is being held up to national Republicans as the shining example of what can happen in a short time when they gain entire control of a state.

    • my thought on reading the same line

      was that I highly doubt the DNC or state parties are far along that research path.

    • Wow

      That is an amazing analysis for a community blog. My first read through I got a lot out of it but it will take a few more to fully get the data in this article. While the issues I thought should be brought to the fore were vindicated, it would seem some of my more centrist views are from a lack of knowledge other than preference. I am ignorant of the details of trade issues and if I was polled as the people here were I would land in the center if I was being honest. That being said I understand how disinformation is so rampant.

      • a reality of politics

        is that most voters will not be deeply informed about all of the issues that may influence their decisions.

        Kent Kroeger didn’t use the word, but “priming” is an important concept of communications research. When news coverage tends to focus a lot of a certain issue or set of issues, it can “prime” voters to evaluate candidates in terms of those issues, rather than on other policies. So the average voter might not know or care much about trade policy, but if media coverage elevates that, people might gravitate toward the person who seems to be aligned with their views on trade.

        A classic example of this in my opinion was September/October 2014. Every competitive race for the U.S. House and Senate shifted away from the Democratic candidates during that period, and I believe that was because there was a media frenzy on the Ebola virus and terrorist attacks.

        This is also why Republicans try to make controversies like transgender bathrooms into big national debates. They don’t want campaigns to hinge on education, Social Security, or other issues that affect millions of people, on which voters tend to support Democratic positions.

        • Agree, news media sets the agenda but...

          But look at what Trump did. He brought the anxieties of the working class into the agenda. He did it insincerely and in a repulsive racist and sexist way but for the working class he at least did not ignore them like the rest of the political and media establishment did. They didn’t even acknowledge that workers were being left behind. But Trump did. So what do Democrats and the pundits do? They mock Trump endlessly and by implication they are mocking the real day to day struggles of working families. If Democrats took those struggles seriously and put policies to address them up front they would have a positive agenda to run on. Trump proved you don’t have to depend on the news media to bring disenfranchised voters into the political discourse.

          But I am not optimistic they will do that. There is tremendous inertia to simply point at Trump and the GOP and say “see how horrible those guys are, vote for us, we are less horrible”. That will backfire again and again, how long will it take Democrats to learn that?

          And yes, Civil Rights are a potential winning issue for Dems. But they have implicitly framed it in a way that backfires consistently. Diversity! (we just have to wait until old white guys die). Until Dems find a way to frame that in a way that benefits all workers and explicitly detail an assertive agenda to do it they will remain a truly minority party.

  • Very interesting work

    It will take me time to process it.

  • This is key:

    “politics is just not that important to Americans”

    They vote on personalities and on identity issues (tribalism) and need leaders who can connect daily life with election outcomes. The salient issues vary over time, partly depending on what the candidate wants to emphasize.

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