Romney’s Pivot to the Center Hasn’t Worked. (But It Didn’t Need To.)

by John Sides on October 11, 2012 · 13 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Perhaps you’ve heard about Romney’s pivot to the center in last week’s debate—what it means, whether it will work, how Obama is responding, etc.  Yesterday, Bill Clinton described his reaction to Romney’s performance thusly: “Wow, here’s old moderate Mitt. Where ya been, boy?”

New survey data suggests that voters’ reaction was far less dramatic.  In fact, voters didn’t perceive Romney’s underlying ideology any differently after the debate.

Since January, YouGov polls have asked voters to place themselves, Obama, and Romney on the liberal-conservative spectrum—specifically, on a five-category scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.”  Below are the trends from January until the most recent poll, conducted from October 6-8.  The  graph plots the average placements of Obama and Romney as well as where respondents placed themselves, on average.  The graph depicts the data points as well as smoothed averages.


Three things are happening here.  First, in the minds of voters, Obama and Romney have moved away from the average voter, but Romney has moved further.  Romney is now perceived as notably more conservative.  For example, in mid-January, 37% considered Romney moderate, 39% considered him conservative, and 16% considered him very conservative.  In the first October poll, 24% considered him moderate, while 40% considered him conservative and 29% considered him very conservative.

Second, perceptions of Romney’s ideology did not change before and after the debate—even though the timing of the post-debate poll allowed respondents to hear two days of news coverage discussing Romney’s pivot.  But the lack of change is not surprising: a venerable finding in political science is that many people do not have a deep understanding of political ideologies in general or the specific positions that candidates take in elections—much less how the latter connects to the former.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Romney may not have needed this pivot to the center anyway.  Even though he is perceived as more conservative than the average voter—and increasingly so—he is still closer to the average voter than is Obama. This belies the notion that Romney’s conservative positions in the primary have damaged him in the general election. Romney’s struggles up until his debate win were not about ideology.  And if this debate has a long-term effect on the race, it may not involve making voters see him as more moderate.  In fact, although Romney’s embrace of conservatism has attracted more commentary, Obama’s perceived liberalism could prove the bigger liability in November.

{ 13 comments }

Christina Forbes October 11, 2012 at 8:52 am

The lack of impact on voters of ideological positions — voters in general, not those filtered through the media, which assume a much higher engagement with political opinion — probably reflects the truth that people decide and react on the basis of the amygdala and not the frontal cortex. So, just as Romney’s evolving ideological drift has not borne any relation to his enunciated positions on issues, the same is true of Obama and people’s opinions of him. Thus, regardless of people’s perceptions about about each candidate’s relative position, the view of Obama’s ideology compared to the “average voter” compared to Romeny’s will have little impact on actual voting behavior. It’s all about gut and not much about brain.

David Perkins October 11, 2012 at 9:35 am

While it’s tempting to conclude from these data that Romney’s leftward tack had little impact on voters, I’m not sure that’s what’s happening. Sure, voters haven’t changed their view of Romney’s ideology but that needn’t be the case for his moderation to have worked. His move to the center on taxes (cutting 5 trillion is not my plan), pre-existing conditions (covered) and Medicare (strengthened) may not have been perceived as overtly ideological but merely as positive answers. Thus by moving to the left he was able to offer popular answers and it was these popular answers that allowed him (along with an assist from Obama) to win the debate. Respondents’ inability to connect the policy with the ideology is not a sign that Romney’s moderation wasn’t successful, merely, as you mentioned, a general shortcoming on the part of the electorate.

Tyson October 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm

This was my thought as well. I don’t think the average general election voter has much an idea of Romney’s previous position on taxes, medicare, and healthcare reform. They “knew” he was somewhat conservative, since he’s a Republican, but not as conservative as some other Republicans that may have become the nominee (I’m not sure if they’d remember any names, maybe Gingrich). Then at the debate they “found out” that he won’t raise taxes on the rich, will protect medicare, etc. That would reinforce their impression that he is only somewhat conservative.

It would be interesting to see if high information voters were also unchanged.

Peter Hanson October 11, 2012 at 10:33 am

Very interesting. Can this difference be accounted for by differences in how Republicans view Obama versus how Democrats view Romney? I’d guess that Republicans view Obamaas very far left. How do independents view the two candidates?

Nadia Hassan October 11, 2012 at 11:54 am

Independents view themselves as closer to Romney too.

Peter October 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Thank you.

Peter Hovde October 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

The relevant metric is surely the median voter, not the average.

John Sides October 11, 2012 at 1:35 pm

The median respondent picks “moderate,” unsurprisingly. Romney is still closer to that person than is Obama.

Henry Baum October 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Maybe I’m missing something, but most people are conservative: they pay the bills, consume mainstream media, and don’t rock the boat too much. But when confronted with actual liberal policies – regulation of industry, taxing the rich, it turns out they’re not conservative at all.

Barry Burden October 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I think the general trend of candidates appearing farther apart over time occurs in most presidential elections. The ANES and NAES show this. It’s really a matter of voters learning the candidates’ positions.

What is interesting is that Romney looks to be moving right faster than Obama is moving left. That’s a bit surprising coming out of the Republican primaries. One might have expected Romney to look more conservative after having won that nomination, but maybe the contrast with Santorum and Gingrich was helpful.

It would be great to see this graph updated in a week or two!

Scott Ainsworth October 11, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Related to Barry’s comment and the general trend of candidates drifting away from the median. My sense is that challengers have generally moved more than incumbents. Consider the respondent from the first half of the year. If they know anything about Romney, they are likely to know something about the other Republican candidates as well. In that crowd, Romney appears to be more moderate. The question is answered in relation to the relevant context at the time.

When the Romney is the only R candidate remaining, the relevant context shifts and the comparison shifts to Obama. With Santorum and Gingrich around, Romney appears more moderate. With S & G gone, Romney appears more conservative (in relation to Obama).

Are these real movements by Romney or are these just measurement effects (errors) due to shifts in context?

richard40 October 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Good article and graph. The key is voters percieve themselves not as moderate but as slightly center right. Thus when faced with a straight liberal and a straight conservative, they are cloer to the straight conservative. To win a dem must either portray themselves as center/left, or portray their opponent as an extreme conservative. Clinton went center/left throughout his term, and obama claimed he was center/left in 2008. The problem for obama is he has actually governed as a regular liberal, not a clinton style center/left, and did not move to the center when he lost congress in 2010, but stayed on the left.

Thus all obama had left was to create a strawman romney that looked extreme conservative. That was hard to do because romney was more centrist than his main rivals, gengrich and santorum, in the GOP primaries, but he came close to doing it after the conventions and the 47% remark. What romney managed to do in the debate was to destroy this extreme right strawman obamas campaign had constructed, and accurately portray himelf as the standard conservative that he was.

stoptouchingthatmabel October 13, 2012 at 1:43 am

Obama was the most liberal member when he was in the senate and is the most liberal president ever.

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