“Moderate” voters are one of the most misunderstood blocs of the electorate. While they have historically comprised a plurality of American voters – 41 percent of voters in 2012 and 44 percent in 2008  – moderates are not nearly as monolithic as liberals or conservatives in their ideology or their voting behavior.

These four facts can help demystify the role of moderate voters in today’s politics:

1. Moderates are the deciders who tip elections – for both Republicans and Democrats.

Neither conservatives nor liberals make up a big enough share of the electorate to win majorities on their own. This means both political parties must do more than simply cater to their ideological base. While it’s true that the percentage of self-identified liberals reached a new high in 2013 (23%), that’s still nowhere near 50 percent of the electorate. Conservatives are much closer to a majority with 38 percent of voters, but their share of the electorate has never been higher than 40 percent.

Mathematically, the only way a party can win is to woo enough moderates to tip the scales at 50.1 percent. Depending on the share of moderates in any given state, this often means that candidates need to win a majority of moderates as well as turn out their base. Indeed, one analysis found that in 16 of 21 Senate battleground states in 2010, Democratic candidates who matched the party’s 2008 performance with liberals would still have needed a super-majority of moderates to claim victory in that state.

2. Moderates can also decide elections by staying home.

As we wrote in 2011, moderate voters played a major role in the 2010 election – simply by failing to show. These are the “droppers”: voters who supported President Obama in 2008 but stayed home in 2010. The impact of these moderate “droppers,” together with moderates who “switched” (voting for Obama in 2008 but voting Republican in 2010), was in fact enough to cost Democrats control of the House.

While we can’t definitively say what prompts moderates to stay home on Election Day, moderates are generally less likely to turn out than conservatives or liberals. Moderates disgusted by both candidates might be more likely to stay home than to show up and vote against the candidate they dislike most. This means campaigns might want to rethink a strategy that relies on trashing the opposition if it also makes their own candidate less appealing.

The absence of moderates also makes a difference in primaries. Moderate voters are less likely to show up in primary elections, which means the primary electorate tends to be more ideologically extreme than the general electorate. This has led both parties to nominate more extreme candidates at the behest of the base (Ned Lamont in Connecticut or Richard Mourdock in Indiana, for example) only to lose in the general election (again like Lamont or Mourdock). Arguably, greater participation by moderates in primaries could lead to more “electable” candidates in general elections.

3. “Moderates” are not the same as “independents.”

While “moderate” is about ideology, “independent” is about party preference.

Study after study has shown that there are actually very few truly independent voters who don’t lean toward one party or the other – perhaps 6 to 7 percent of the electorate. The vast majority of “independents” are actually what the University of Virginia calls “closet partisans” who think and vote like partisans but don’t want to be openly affiliated with a particular party.

As a consequence, independents are actually ideologically very diverse. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz, for example, found that independent “leaners” “generally share… the dominant ideological orientation of the party they leaned toward.” In fact, he concludes, “ independent Democrats were more liberal than weak Democrats while independent Republicans were more conservative than weak Republicans.”

Here’s further evidence that moderates and independents are not the same: while party identification has been slipping to new lows – Gallup found that a record 42 percent of Americans now call themselves “independent” – ideological identification remains relatively stable.

4. “Moderate” means different things in different parts of the country.

The states with the highest percentages of moderate voters aren’t necessarily “swing states” but states that are solidly red or solidly blue. In 2012, for example, Alaska, Rhode Island and Ohio had the highest shares of moderate voters in the country (42.7 percent, 41.5 percent and 39.5 percent respectively), but only Ohio could arguably be called a “swing state.”  Alaska was decidedly red in the 2012 presidential election (Obama lost by 14-points), while Rhode Island was definitively blue (Obama won by 27).

How is this possible?  Remembering that both parties need moderate votes – and in some cases a super-majority of moderate votes – to win, this can only mean that moderates in any given state lean toward one ideological pole or the other. Thus, “moderates” in Alaska lean conservative, while “moderates” in Rhode Island lean liberal.

This means there is no single winning formula that can win all moderates across the country. “Moderates” in the Northeast tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal (think former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg). “Moderates” in the South tend to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal (think early years of former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee). “Moderates” in the Mountain West tend to take a more libertarian view on government favoring limited government intervention on guns, drugs, and marriage (think former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson).

Successful candidates are the ones who understand the variations in what it means to be “moderate” from place to place. In essence, there is only so much you can learn from a successful campaign in another state. Broad strategic guidance must be balanced with detailed knowledge of the local electorate.

The bottom line is that even if there’s no silver bullet for winning moderates, there’s no question of moderates’ importance. Greater efforts to understand and reach this important group – and to encourage their participation – can only benefit the nation’s political process.

[Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

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Stefan Hankin

Stefan Hankin is the President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C.