Esquire's 'new American center' isn't very centrist

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  • Politicians and strategists will find useful information in the pollsters' picture of the new American center.

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  • The center seems to be more hostile than the general public to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

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  • The pollsters divided Americans into eight groups based on their responses to the poll questions.

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  • The "new centrists" look like 1990s Ross Perot voters: disproportionately irreligious and white.

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NBC News and Esquire magazine commissioned two polling companies to collect data on Americans' views and slice and dice them to discover a "new American center."

This center, it turns out, opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, favors gay marriage and legal abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and wants to end affirmative action in colleges. With allowances for the emergence of same-sex marriage as an issue, the "new centrists" look a lot like the people who voted for Ross Perot in the early 1990s: They're disproportionately irreligious and white.

The pollsters divided Americans into eight groups based on their responses to the poll questions: two liberal groups, two conservative groups and four in between. They aggregated those four groups to see what the center thinks about various issues.

This method yields a center with views that are different from those of the median voter. On social issues, especially, the "center" the pollsters found is to the left of the public as a whole.

Respondents were given six options on abortion, for example, ranging from a complete ban to legality throughout pregnancy for any reason. Forty-eight percent of all respondents picked the three relatively pro-life answers, but only 36 percent of the "center" did. The "center" voted for President Barack Obama by a higher margin than the general public, too (although some of that discrepancy may be people "remembering" that they backed the winner, which often happens in polls).

Why does the center skew left on these issues? Because a left-leaning subgroup is excluded from it: what the poll calls the "Gospel Left," 54 percent of whom chose one of the pro-life options. Most members of this group are black. Over and over in the survey results, you see a familiar story: Social conservatives are underrepresented in the center because so many black social conservatives aren't up-for-grabs voters but rather very loyal Democrats.

The center seems to be a bit more hostile than the general public to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants for a slightly different reason. Here the numbers are skewed by very strong support from one of the liberal groups, variously identified by the pollsters as "young liberals" or "bleeding hearts," who are also excluded from the center: 51 percent of them strongly agree that Congress should create such a path, compared with 16 percent of the total population and 12 percent of the center.

Politicians and strategists will find useful information in the pollsters' picture of the new American center. Just don't confuse it for a picture of the middle of American society.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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