But the center leans rightward on the environment, capital punishment, and diversity programs. Majorities support offshore drilling (81 percent) and the death penalty (90 percent), and the end of affirmative action in hiring and education (57 percent). Most people in the center believe respect for minority rights has gone overboard, in general, harming the majority in the process (63 percent). And just one in four support immigration reforms that would provide a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.
Explore Esquire magazine's coverage of the exclusive survey.
Such data provide the richest and most useful portrait available of the modern political mind, complete with hidden affinities primed to sway elections in 2014, 2016 and beyond. "All you hear in Washington is that there's nothing in the middle of the aisle," said Daniel Franklin, a principal at the Benenson Strategy Group and Obama's pollster during the 2012 campaigns. "But it turns out that's not true. We have a massive American center, and it's probably been there for years, just waiting to be found."
But Washington beware: The people of the new American center aren't united by easy labels. Some are Republicans (28 percent). Others are Democrats (36 percent). Still others are Independents (36 percent). The people of the center self-describe as liberals (20 percent), conservatives (25 percent), moderates (55 percent) — and 15 percent support the Tea Party.
Culturally, the center could be the butt of any joke in America, with lives that encompass Duck Dynasty and NPR, baby arugula and all-you-can eat Fridays. The center includes suburban mothers, rural working class men, rich city-dwelling business-people and relatively disaffected young people.
Yes, the center is mostly white (78 percent) but so is most of the American voting public (72 percent) — and the center is changing. Already it contains a fifth of African-American voters, one in two Latino voters, and half the women in America. The center is roomy, or in other words, welcoming.
The much-exaggerated death of the center can be traced to the 2000 presidential race, and its famous election night map: the endlessly red heartland, bracketed by blue on the coasts. Pundits rushed in with polls and data, declaring the arrival of two tribes driven apart by geography, cultural and cynical campaigns.
But the problem was partly an artifact of the polls themselves, which shunted voters into dueling camps, emphasizing difference and measuring ideology in relation to political parties. The Esquire-NBC News survey, conducted nationwide with 2,410 registered voters, took a less common approach to the electorate, measuring a range of opinion, searching for overlap and gauging ideology by issue, not party (see "Methodology," below).
Explore the findings yourself, take the survey to learn your own ideological niche, or read deeper dives into the crack-up of American optimism, the rise of class as a national concern and the complexities facing both parties in the run-up to 2016.
Bottom line: The center is real, passionate and persuadable. It leans Democratic but a majority of those in the center agree with a mix of Republican and Democratic ideas, and about the same percentage self-describe as neither liberal nor conservative.
The center, in other words, is ready to swing — and in the years ahead a nimble political platform could swing along with it.
--By NBC News