Doug Ahler and David Broockman in The Monkey Cage:
Donald Trump is one of the most extreme presidential candidates to gain widespread support in contemporary American politics. Despite championing policies like the end of birthright citizenship, mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and a registry of Muslims living in the United States, Trump has consistently polled atop the Republican field since July. A popular perspective thus attributes Trump’s success to a “right wing fringe” of GOP voters.
But this conventional wisdom misses something important: Trump meets the textbook definition of an ideological moderate.
Trump has the exact “moderate” qualities that many pundits and political reformers yearn for in politicians: Many of Trump’s positions spurn party orthodoxy, yet are popular among voters. And like most voters — but unlike most party politicians — his positions don’t consistently hew to a familiar left-right philosophy.
At Tuesday night’s debate, for example, Trump flanked the Republican party on the right and left — calling for killing civilians and saying the Iraq war was a mistake because it diverted money from domestic spending priorities. CrowdPAC thus lists Trump as far more moderate than the other Republican candidates.
How can Trump be both a moderate and an extremist? Our research has shown why support for extreme policies and so-called “ideological moderation” often go together — people who appear “moderate” on a left-right ideological spectrum often have extreme views on individual issues.
Here’s how this works: Measures of voters’ left-right “ideology” primarily capture the frequency with which their opinions fall on the liberal or conservative side on different issues. Many Americans’ policy opinions are mixed bags of liberal and conservative positions, earning them the distinction of being called “ideological moderates.” Just like Trump.
But, as Trump shows, holding ideologically mixed positions across issues, which political scientists call “ideological moderation,” doesn’t guarantee that those individual policy views are moderate at all.