New center: Why our nation isn't as divided as we think

Tony Dokoupil, Senior Staff Writer
Poll: Nation not as divided as many believe
Poll: Nation not as divided as many believe

It's the most conventional wisdom in Washington, the unchallenged idea that America is a divided nation, a country ripped into red and blue factions in perpetual conflict. The government shutdown this fall would seem like only the latest evidence of this political civil war. But is the idea of two Americas even true? Not according to a new Esquire-NBC News survey.

At the center of national sentiment there's no longer a chasm but a common ground where a diverse and growing majority - 51% - is bound by a surprising set of shared ideas.

Silhouettes of people's heads are seen in front of an 2012 electoral U.S. Map.

"Just because Washington is polarized doesn't mean America is," says Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, the lead pollster for Mitt Romney in 2012. His firm co-created the survey with the Benenson Strategy Group, pollsters for President Obama, and the result is a nation in eight distinct segments: two on the far right ("The Righteous Right" and "The Talk Radio Heads"), two on the far left ("The Bleeding Hearts" and "The Gospel Left"), and four in the middle that represent nothing less than a new American center ("Minivan Moderates," "The MBA Middle," "The Pick-up Populists, and "The #WhateverMan.")

Political theater takes center stage on Capitol Hill
Political theater takes center stage on Capitol Hill

The people of the center are patriotic and proud, with a strong majority (66 percent) saying that America is still the greatest country in the world, and most (54 percent) calling it a model that other countries should emulate. But the center is also very nervous about the future, overwhelmingly saying that America can no longer afford to spend money on foreign aid (81 percent) when we need to build up our own country.

Take an interactive quiz to find out where you stand.

Pluralities believe that the political system is broken (49 percent), and the economy is bad (50 percent) and likely to stay that way a while (41 percent). Majorities fear another 9/11 or Boston-style bombing is likely (70 percent), and that their children's lives will be more difficult than their own (62 percent), which are either stuck in place or getting worse (84 percent) — while the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else (70 percent).

The new American center has a socially progressive streak, supporting gay marriage (64 percent), the right to an abortion for any reason within the first trimester (63 percent), and legalized marijuana (52 percent). Women, workers and the marginal would also benefit if the center had its way, supporting paid sick leave (62 percent); paid maternity leave (70 percent); tax-subsidized childcare to help women return to work (57 percent); and a federal minimum wage hike to no less than $10 per hour (67 percent).

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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