Moderates often aren't moderate at all. They're just inconsistent. And that lets them be more extreme.
This makes them different than loyal Democrats and Republicans. Partisans tend to adopt the positions held by their parties, and parties tend to adopt positions that are popular, achievable and workable. So voters who follow their parties end up pushing ideas in the political mainstream.
But voters who aren't as interested in politics and who don't attach themselves to a party push the ideas they actually like, irrespective of whether they're popular or could attract 60 votes in the Senate or would be laughed at by policy experts. Those ideas are often pretty extreme, but because they fall both on the left and the right, pollsters often mistakes them for moderates.
The way it works, explains David Broockman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they're left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle — and so they're labeled as moderate.
But when you drill down into those individual answers you find a lot of opinions that are far from the political center. "A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British," Broockman told me in July 2014. "A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process."
One of those people, obviously, is Trump, who has both lavishly praised national health-care systems and called for mass deportations.
These are the kinds of voters Trump could appeal to: voters who hold a basket of opinions that aren't quite represented by either party. Voters who want to deport all unauthorized immigrants while also spending more money on Social Security, or voters who are skeptical of free-trade agreements even as they're virulently anti-abortion.
Trump's ideas are sometimes very liberal, sometimes very conservative, and sometimes completely incoherent. And that's true for a lot of voters, too.
This speaks to the problem with Washington's fetishization of moderate voters, which is more often a projection of what political elites wish nonaffiliated voters wanted than a serious engagement with what people ill-served by the two parties actually want. After all, now that someone is finally representing all those moderates out there, the political establishment doesn't seem all that happy about it.