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.