If there's one thing that everyone knows about American politics, it's that the country is more polarized than ever. Thanks to geographical divides, reinforced by gerrymandering and partisan media echo chambers, the U.S. is more ideologically divided than any time since perhaps the Civil War.
This political truism, it turns out, may not be true. At the very least, it's more complicated than that.
A new Esquire/NBC News poll has found that "at the center of national sentiment there's no longer a chasm but a common ground where a diverse and growing majority — 51 percent — is bound by a surprising set of shared ideas," says Tony Dokoupil at NBC News. The survey was created and conducted by pollsters from who worked for the campaigns of both President Obama and Mitt Romney. They polled 2,410 registered voters from Aug. 5-11.
"Just because Washington is polarized doesn't mean America is," says Robert Blizzard at Public Opinion Strategies, the lead polling firm for Romney 2012. The pollsters divided the nation into eight distinct, media-friendly groups. Four were put on either fringe — "The Righteous Right" and "The Talk Radio Heads" on the far right; "The Bleeding Hearts" and "The Gospel Left" on the liberal end. The other four in the middle were "Minivan Moderates," "The MBA Middle," "The Pick-up Populists," and "The #WhateverMan."
If this sounds a lot like warmed-over monikers from elections past — Soccer Moms? Joe Six-Pack? — remember, these are political pollsters. Don't judge their polling data by their PR hackery.
One more thing to keep in mind: Just because a sizable majority of Americans agrees on something — like, say, that they disapprove of how House Republicans are handling the federal budget (70+ percent) and that both parties are doing such a bad job we need a third major party (60 percent) — doesn't mean that it's necessarily the same people answering yes both times. Most centrists won't agree with all of the "centrist" positions in the poll.
In fact, many centrists don't self-identify as such. Only 55 percent of those the pollsters put in the "center" describe themselves as moderate; 20 percent call themselves liberal and 25 percent are conservative. "Hell, 15 percent of those in the center say they are supporters of the Tea Party," says Esquire.
"This center swath represents a patchwork of ideological positions that can, depending on the issue, be heretical to either Democrats or Republicans," says Adam O'Neal at RealClearPolitics, "or broadly popular throughout America."
What are these centrist ideas? Esquire has an impressive selection of infographics to present the data, and an interactive quiz if you want to see where you fit in the new nomenclature. But here are some of the plain numbers, with a dab of context:
78 percent of the center is white
"Pretty white," says Esquire. "Not as white as the folks all the way to the right, but still: Pretty white."
58 percent strongly support voter ID laws
54 percent aren't strict constitutional originalists
They agree that "after 230 years, the Constitution can't provide guidance for for many of the modern problems we face now."
55 percent are pessimistic about U.S. politics
A smaller plurality, 41 percent, is pessimistic about the American economy
62 percent don't own a gun, and neither does anyone in their household
"Even though about a third of those in the center own guns," says Esquire, "an overwhelming plurality have no problem with background checks."
59 percent say churches and religious groups have no role in politics
Only 29 percent say that religion is important to them, and that they regularly make time to pray and attend religious services. "The center is less religious than the Right, and — surprise! — it's less religious than the Left, too," says Esquire.
73 percent support government-enforced equal pay for equal work
Also, 44 percent approves raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour and 54 percent support programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare to help people hit by hard times. "On the Left, there is intense and broad support for these issues, but there are huge divisions on the Right," says Esquire.
50 percent support a balance budget amendment to the Constitution
"There is significant tension on the Left regarding a balanced-budget amendment," says Esquire, "with the secular Left split on an amendment while the religious strongly support it."
54 percent don't want the government to legislate personal behavior
The examples of "personal behavior" include abortion, marriage, owning guns, and smoking marijuana. Voters are all over the map on individual issues, with a strong plurality supporting gay marriage and smaller pluralities backing limitless first-trimester abortion rights and marijuana legalization.
59 percent strongly support raising taxes on people earning $1 million-plus a year
"Contrary to what you might have heard, the Right as a whole supports raising taxes on millionaires and taxing polluters, but just barely," says Esquire.
76 percent think the U.S. should stop policing the world
And they're fine with other countries playing a larger role. But 62 percent also think U.S. security will be at risk if we don't keep an economic and military edge over China.
81 percent oppose foreign aid while America needs to build at home
Along with the previous response, "this is the one thing that the Left, the Right, and the Center agree on," says Esquire — "with one exception: The Center is even less likely than either the Left or the Right to believe that America has a responsibility to maintain peace in the world."
58 percent agree with some ideas from Republicans and some from Democrats
"The center is up for grabs," says Esquire. "More than one in three in the center don't feel like there is anybody in Washington expressing for them. They are waiting to be found."
Read the entire article for more numbers — 26 percent of respondents don't drink alcohol, for example; 34 percent had sex in the previous weekend, while 44 percent went to Walmart or Costco and 47 percent read a book. Sadly for liberals, "if you are on the Left, you are less likely to have had sex, or read a book, than if you are on the Right," notes Esquire.
But if this one poll is right, and there is a strong political center ripe for the picking, does that mean a strong third party is viable for the first time since the short-lived Bull Moose Party? Probably not, says Nate Cohn at The New York Times. Even if the conditions in a handful of states or congressional districts were just right, third party candidates "would need to overcome a host of structural disadvantages," like ballot access laws and lack of an organized base.
Andrew Sullivan at The Dish largely agrees, with the caveat that "this recent bout of recklessness on the right" with regards to the government shutdown could provoke "the Cruz-Palin-Lee wing to go rogue with a Tea Party ticket." Then Sullivan demonstrates why the conventional wisdom about Red and Blue America will be hard to kill: "I suspect that if a third party emerges temporarily, it would be from the far right, not the increasingly empty center."