Although the new Democratic Congress completed its "first hundred hours" with some important successes, such as voting to raise the minimum wage, the rest of its agenda - and specifically how much Democrats will challenge President Bush - remains very much up in the air.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have repeatedly promised to work "from the middle." They've declined to make clear how far they'll push to undo the Republicans' tax cuts for the rich, to pass aggressive legislation to combat environmental crises such as global warming, or to use their power of the purse to chart a new course in Iraq. It seems clear that Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid are convinced that undoing the Bush agenda would be good for America, but they are worried that pursuing a confrontational agenda could turn off the independent voters who split in their direction just enough in 2006 to give them their narrow majorities.
Although pursuing only modest goals comports well with conventional Democratic political strategy, it's not a good strategy for maintaining and expanding independents' support - and it runs the risk of turning off the progressive organizations and activists who increasingly provide money and volunteer power for Democratic campaigns.
I analyzed more than 20 years of exit poll data in presidential elections from the University of Michigan's American National Election Study. The results were clear and echoed the conclusions of dozens of other studies: A candidate's issue positions have only a tiny influence on a voter's decision in the ballot box.
Indeed, the differences between candidates' positions on all issues combined accounted for only 4 percent of the average voter's decision, according to the data. That means that pandering to the middle by pursuing moderate policies is unlikely to have much impact for the average voter, who is unlikely to be aware of them or to factor them heavily into his or her decision.
In comparison, economic conditions account for 10 percent of a voter's decision; a voter's perception of a candidate's personal qualities (particularly whether or not the candidate is considered a "strong leader"), 11 percent; and a candidate's party a whopping 33 percent (Republicans tend to vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats).
Why don't issues have more of an impact? One reason is that voters tend not to have strong opinions about even the most contentious policy issues of the day. This is the dirty little secret of every poll and focus group. If you ask people their opinion on an issue, most people will give it, or make one up. Many people will even offer opinions about issues that don't exist. In one famous University of Cincinnati study, a team led by professor George Bishop asked poll respondents their opinions about imaginary laws. They found that more than 30 percent of people could consistently be persuaded to give an opinion on fabricated bills such as the "Agricultural Trade Act of 1983."
The softness of most voters' issue positions has enabled Republicans to make previously unpopular policies about invading Iraq, immigration and taxes popular almost overnight through aggressive advocacy and concerted public relations campaigns.
Even in those cases where voters have strong opinions about issues, it doesn't mean that they know the candidates' positions about those issues. A recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that even in the 2004 presidential election (which registered some of the highest levels of voter knowledge in history), 25 percent of people couldn't answer correctly whether it was George W. Bush or John Kerry who favored making the tax cuts permanent, and 37 percent didn't know which candidate wanted to allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada.
While Democrats have very little to gain from shifting issue positions, doing so could cause considerable damage. If they're seen to be shifting their agenda out of political expediency and not out of conviction, it could hurt them when voters are considering whether or not Democrats are "strong leaders" or "have integrity," two measures that matter to voters far more than a candidate's issue positions.
Moving to the middle also could turn off the millions of progressives who made phone calls, donated money and blogged for the Democrats in 2006. These progressives - and the organizations that represent them - do watch the issues very closely. If they don't see Democratic leaders moving aggressively for change, they could quickly become disillusioned, and start aiming their fire at Democrats not living up to their expectations, rather than focusing on, for instance, helping to oust Republicans from the White House in 2008.
If the Democrats are going to pander, they should at least pander to the progressives who care about their policies.
Glenn Hurowitz is the president of DemocraticCourage.com and author of the forthcoming book "Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party." His e-mail is email@example.com