Is the Political Center Finally Poised to Strike Back?

The United States appears to be more polarized than ever. While many Americans hoped the divisiveness would wane with the conclusion of the Trump administration, it has continued and in some ways even escalated in the early days of the Biden administration—and the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Roe v. Wade may fan the flames even more.

According to Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved further to the left and right, respectively, over the past several decades. As a result, the two parties are now further apart ideologically than ever before. This has made it especially difficult for Congress to pass meaningful legislation on the issues voters care about the most.

These trends certainly appear to signal a bleak future. But there is a separate, more promising trend indicating the American people might be eager to mobilize to change the status quo. While the most extreme voices speak the loudest—and are further amplified in the media—more Americans now identify as political independents than as Republicans or Democrats, and this share has been increasing for decades. Further, according to Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans believe both political parties are too extreme in their positions.

In an April 2022 Harvard/Harris Poll, majorities of Americans said they did not think Joe Biden or Donald Trump should run for president in 2024. When asked if they would “consider a moderate independent candidate for president if the 2024 match was between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” 58% said yes.

Of course, openness to voting for a third-party candidate does not necessarily translate to actual votes, as the dominance of the two-party system throughout the past century and a half has prevented even those dissatisfied with the major-party candidates from casting what they perceive to be “throwaway” third-party ballots. The last time a third-party candidate received over 20% of the popular vote was 1912, when two-term president Teddy Roosevelt switched his affiliation to the Progressive “Bull Moose Party” and ran for a third term. And no third-party candidate has won a single electoral vote since 1968.

But then again, the American public has rarely been this dissatisfied with the direction of our country and the condition of our politics. And there are other signs the public is increasingly mobilizing behind more pragmatic, rather than extreme, leaders—regardless of their party labels. According to Morning Consult, the three governors with the highest approval ratings are moderate Republicans in solid blue states, indicating that they have successfully appealed to voters on both sides.

In both the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election, the big outstanding question is whether or not the growing share of Americans who want leaders to govern from the center will vote with the same enthusiasm as those on the fringes. Historically, individuals who identify as moderate or independent have been less likely than their more ideological peers to participate in elections or pay close attention to politics. This could be a reason why there is a slight negative correlation between a Senator’s willingness to work across the aisle (as measured by The Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index) and his or her approval rating (given their lower levels of political engagement, independents are more inclined to select “don’t know/no opinion” on approval polls, leaving voters who are more ideological and more engaged to determine their final outcome). Moderates are often stereotyped as dull and uninspiring candidates, but in order to excite independent voters and ultimately drive them to the polls, they must rise above this characterization and present themselves as passionate leaders eager to get things done.

With pressing issues like rising inflation, energy security and climate change, immigration, and crime top of mind, Americans are tired of hearing calls to defund the police or ban children’s books from school libraries. Extremist rhetoric, the failure of Congress to pass meaningful legislation, and the rise of independent voters have led to a critical moment in which the center is poised to make an impact.