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We’ve Never Known Less About An Incoming President’s Ideology

Most presidents enter the White House with a raft of policy proposals and a clear ideological bent. Ronald Reagan was a hard-core conservative. Bill Clinton was a centrist Democrat. President Obama was a left-of-center mainstream Democrat. Voters had an idea not only of the policies newly elected presidents wanted to enact but also of the ideological values that would guide unforeseen decisions.

Trying to figure out President-elect Donald Trump’s ideology, on the other hand, is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. He released few detailed policy positions during the campaign, and his actions and statements in the few weeks since the election have been anything but clarifying. We probably know less about what the Trump administration will be like than any incoming administration in modern American history. Trump could end up being one of the most moderate presidents in a generation, or he could be one of the most extreme. He might be both.

First, let’s look at the more qualitative evidence — namely, Trump’s actions since winning. Although Trump is probably best known as an immigration hard-liner, he’s rarely spoken about the issue since Election Day. In his victory speech, for instance, he didn’t mention immigration at all. In fact, he didn’t promote any typically conservative policies. The only policy he highlighted was a traditionally Democratic one, infrastructure, saying he would “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” He has since released a YouTube video laying out what he wants to do on his first day in office. He could have been confused for a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat in it (well, almost). Trump said he would focus on creating jobs, ending America’s commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and imposing a ban on lobbyists. About the only traditionally Republican stance he took was against restrictions on “shale energy and clean coal.” Once again, Trump made no mention of immigration or his position on a Muslim registry, which he previously supported.

So maybe he’s taking the moderate route? Well, not really. Trump’s transition appointments have signaled an instinct to go hard right, particularly if you believe “personnel is policy.” He nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions, an uber conservative anti-immigration hawk, to be his attorney general. Sessions, of Alabama, was previously denied a federal judgeship because of racist statements he was alleged to have made as a U.S. attorney. Democrats continue to oppose his nomination. Trump also named Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. Bannon was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, a website that published articles with headlines including “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” and “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ Is Simple: Women Should Log Off.” Bannon, like Sessions, has been vigorously protested by Democratic groups. Trump has also made more mainstream picks — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador and Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff — but his staffing decisions so far have skewed far right and, in the case of Bannon, fringe.

What about more quantitative measures of ideology? It’s difficult to pin down Trump on the normal left-right spectrum. Indeed, he illustrates the limits of a single ideological label or score, going left one minute and making a sharp right the next. As my colleague Nate Silver wrote, Trump mixes “extremely conservative stances on issues such as immigration with surprisingly moderate (or even leftist) ones on other issues such as trade — with a lot of improvisation (and inconsistency) along the way.”

The website OnTheIssues, which assigns an ideological grade to politicians’ statements and votes, can get us a little further than a simple left-right scale. OnTheIssues scores statements related to both economic and social issues from -5 (very liberal) to +5 (very conservative). By their scorekeeping, Trump is a “libertarian-leaning conservative” — on the border of being a “moderate.” OnTheIssues rates Obama and George W. Bush, by contrast, as “hard-core liberal” and “hard-core conservative.” It’s not that Trump doesn’t hold strong positions, but rather that his stances don’t slot him into the neat right-left categories we’ve grown accustomed to in politics.

If you add up all of Trump’s OnTheIssues scores, you get one of the most moderate presidents in a generation. Trump scores a +42.5. The only president in the past 40 years closer to zero (perfectly moderate) was George H.W. Bush.

SCORE
PRESIDENT ECONOMIC SOCIAL TOTAL
Barack Obama -30.0 -30.0 -60.0
Jimmy Carter -27.5 -32.5 -60.0
Bill Clinton -27.5 -17.5 -45.0
George H.W. Bush +20.0 +15.0 +35.0
Donald Trump +15.0 +27.5 +42.5
Gerald Ford +22.2 +27.5 +49.7
George W. Bush +32.5 +27.5 +60.0
Ronald Reagan +27.8 +33.3 +61.1
Trump’s ideology is hard to pin down

A total score of -100 is most liberal, while a total score of +100 is most conservative. A score of -50 on either the economic or social scale is most liberal, while a score +50 is most conservative.

Source: Ontheissues.org

Trump rates as slightly more moderate, according to OnTheIssues, than Bill Clinton, and as far more moderate than George W. Bush and Obama. And although Trump has sometimes compared himself to Reagan, Reagan was the most conservative president in the past 40 years. Trump seems to be anything but that.

But giving Trump a single ideological score based on economic and social positions may conceal as much as it reveals. For one, if Trump seeks to deport all immigrants who are here illegally, but at the same time tries to preserve Social Security, would the “moderate” label really apply? What if he supported a massive investment in the nation’s infrastructure while gutting regulations of Wall Street? There’s also no left-right category for bigoted, misogynistic or racist statements. In early September, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 60 percent of Americans thought Trump was “biased” against women and minorities. In late August, YouGov asked voters whether Trump was a bigot — 47 percent said he was; 36 percent said he wasn’t. Fifty-one percent said Trump was a racist. Only 35 percent said he wasn’t.

It all makes reducing Trump to one number or label counterproductive.

But if quantitative measures of ideology have trouble capturing Trumpism, so too did voters. A majority of Americans — 55 percent — said Trump was “extreme” according to a Pew Research Center poll taken in June and July. But voters in other polls rated Trump more centrist. In the lead-up to the election, Gallup asked Americans whether they saw Trump as a conservative, a moderate or a liberal, and only 47 percent saw him as conservative, while 22 percent saw him as moderate and 19 percent saw him as liberal. That last number is really high for a Republican presidential candidate. More Americans rated Trump “liberal” than they did any other incoming Republican president. That’s also higher than the share of Americans who have rated any incoming Democratic president “conservative.” In other words, voters linked Trump to an ideology usually associated with the other party at rates unprecedented in recent elections.

By this measure, Trump would be one of the most moderate incoming presidents in a generation. We can see this by assigning a -1 for every respondent who said a winning candidate was liberal, a 0 for those who said moderate and a 1 for respondents who picked conservative.1 I did this for the Gallup poll in 2012 and 2016 and the final CBS/New York Times poll that asked this question in the fall before every election since 1976.2

CONSIDER CANDIDATE TO BE …
YEAR WINNER LIBERAL MODERATE CONSERVATIVE IDEOLOGICAL SCORE
2008 Barack Obama 60% 25% 12% -51
2012 Barack Obama 60 22 12 -51
1996 Bill Clinton 45 37 10 -38
1992 Bill Clinton 38 37 13 -28
1976 Jimmy Carter 39 25 18 -26
2016 Donald Trump 19 22 47 +32
1980 Ronald Reagan 17 15 50 +40
1984 Ronald Reagan 14 17 52 +46
2000 George W. Bush 10 27 52 +47
1988 George H.W. Bush 7 26 50 +52
2004 George W. Bush 8 16 66 +64
Voters had a difficult time agreeing on Trump’s ideology compared with previous presidential election winners

Source: CBS/New York Times, Gallup

Trump gets a score of +32. The average winning candidate excluding Trump had a score 44 points from the ideological center (zero). The only winning candidates who were closer to zero than Trump were Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton were Southern Democrats, so this shouldn’t be too surprising. The highest absolute value belonged to George W. Bush ahead of his second term. Since Trump doesn’t look like any of these winning candidates, perhaps it makes sense that voters were confused. Their best guess was that he was a moderate, but it wasn’t clear.

As the Trump administration approaches its beginning, it’s still unclear what direction Trump will take. If he aligns with Bannon, Trump could end up leading one of the most extreme administrations ever. Or he could be, as Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini put it, the “closest thing the Acela corridor ever gets to a No Labels-y” president. If that’s the case, Trump may end up being far more popular than he is right now. More likely, perhaps, is that the Trump administration will look like the Trump transition: an ideological hodgepodge, moderate on some issues and extreme on others, that defies a single label or number.

Footnotes

  1. I subtracted the percentage who believe the candidate is liberal from the percentage who believe the candidate is conservative and then divided this number by the total percentage who can assign an ideology (thereby allocating the undecideds). Then I multiplied by 100.

  2. No CBS News/New York Times poll asked this question in the fall of 1984. In that case, I used the American National Election Studies fall survey.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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