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How far apart are moderate Democrats and Republicans, really?

On paper, the parties are getting further apart, but there’s still areas of consensus.

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Gary Hatch, Deseret News

Where is the center of politics? In a time when party orthodoxies are morphing, it can be hard to tell.

President Joe Biden classified Republican lawmakers on a scale of “MAGA” to “ultra-MAGA” in recent speeches, using the acronym of former President Donald Trump’s campaign hat to describe the party’s far-right wing in Washington.

“This is not your father’s Republican Party, this is a MAGA party,” Biden said at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The “ultra-MAGA agenda,” Biden said, was a proposed tax increase by Senate Republican campaign committee chair Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. Scott’s proposal actually drew criticism from both parties, prompting him this month to change his “Plan to Rescue America” by replacing the tax proposal with a plan focused on people under age 60. He pulled back to the center.

Politics today is often measured by its extremes, and while Biden meant “ultra-MAGA” as extreme, the No. 3 House Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., considers it a badge of honor.

“I am ultra-MAGA and I’m proud of it,” Stefanik said while leaving a news conference with House Republican leaders last month.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk — who said his deal to buy Twitter is “temporarily on hold” — recently tweeted a meme suggesting the left has moved far left, showing a spectrum that put a self-described center-left moderate like him on the right over time.

On Twitter, conservatives felt seen, while liberals worried about the potential new owner of the social network believing the post-Jan. 6 Republican Party hasn’t budged since 2008.

The shrinking center

Fifty years ago, more than 160 members of Congress were classified as moderate, according to Pew Research Center. Now, there are only about two dozen.

While there was once conservative Democrats to the right of some Republicans and liberal Republicans to the left of some Democrats, today that no longer exists. There’s been no overlap between the least liberal Democrats and most conservative Democrats since 2002 in the House and 2004 in the Senate, according to Pew.

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The parties are both moving away from the middle, but Republicans are moving further to the right faster than Democrats are moving further to the left, Pew found.

The trend is welcome news for conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats, but leaves those in the middle politically alienated. When Pew classified political typology last year, it named those in the middle “Stressed Sideliners.”

‘If you’re a more hardcore partisan voter, you probably feel a little better than you did in the past because you’re more likely to have a representative who may be right along the party line on everything,” said James Curry, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of political science at the University of Utah.

“On the other hand, if you are sort of a middle-of-the-road person stuck in a very one-sided district, you’re probably more dissatisfied than you were in the past,” he said.

While moderates in Congress are fewer between than they once were, they play a pivotal role, including members of the bipartisan “G-20” Senate group. On paper, these centrist Democrats and Republicans seem far apart, with Democrats in the group voting with President Joe Biden an average of nearly 98% of the time, compared with their Republican colleagues who voted with Biden an average of about 58% of the time. But with many of these votes procedural or symbolic, it masks how much these members are able to agree on, including the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed into law and aid for Ukraine.

To grow the number of moderates, some suggest electoral reform. In Alaska, voters this year will participate in a new, nonpartisan primary with ranked-choice voting passed in 2020. Under the new system, voters rank their candidates, and the top four vote-getters move onto the general election, regardless of party, which could have an impact in a state where undeclared voters outnumber registered Republicans.

“Previously those were voters who would have to essentially choose between the lesser of two evils in the general election,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, an electoral reform group. “Now, all the voters get to participate.”

Data from Morning Consult suggests that in the Biden years, being a centrist can sometimes become an asset.

No senator has seen their popularity grow more than Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., a rare red-state Democrat who’s frustrated Biden’s agenda in Washington and seen a 16-point increase in his approval rating back home since Biden took office.

Other moderate senators who’ve seen a popularity bump including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska (10-point increase), Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. (3-point increase), Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. (3-point increase), and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, (2-point increase).

Still, moderates have to contend with the fact that the center is shrinking.

“The next Congress will arguably be the least representative Congress in our history,” Troiano said, because of how few general election races will be decided by the primary. “It’s only going to get worse over time as our self sorting becomes more pronounced.”