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National Politics|By Amy Walter, May 22, 2014

While most of the focus these days has been on the Tea Party's success in moving the GOP to the right, not enough attention has been paid to the very real possibility of a Democratic contest in 2016 that pushes the nominee too far to the left. A new poll from Third Way, a middle-of-the-road Democratic think tank, finds that moderate voters are much more skeptical of the kind of government intervention that many liberals support. So, why should Democrats care what moderates think? Because self-identified moderate voters are a key Democratic constituency. The more alienated they feel from the party, the bigger the opportunity for the GOP to pick them off.

It should come as no surprise that Third Way, a group committed to keeping the Democratic Party from straying too far to the fringes, is promoting the importance of moderate voters. But, it's not without political merit. Since 2006, Democrats have carried moderate voters by double digits, and in some cases, even as they were losing the so-called swing "independent" vote. For example, while President Obama lost independent voters by five points in 2012, he carried moderates by 15 points. Winning them by double digits seems to be the key for Democrats. Losing presidential nominee John Kerry won independent voters by 2 points in 2004, but only carried moderates by nine points.

Moreover, the State of the Center poll conducted in mid April (April 14-18) for Third Way by Benenson Strategy Group, found that the majority of those who called themselves moderates (55 percent) also "lean" toward Democrats. In other words, moderates are more aligned politically with Democrats than Republicans.

Culturally, moderates are more aligned with liberals and Democrats than they are with conservatives and Republicans. Almost half believe that Democrats "share their values" and "fight for people like you." Like liberals, they were much less likely to believe that the Bible is "the literal word of God" than conservatives. They are strong supporters of a safety net, and believe that government should play some role in "ensuring equality."

However, those on the left pushing for a "Warren-esque" approach to Wall Street and big business, take note: When asked what they thought was a bigger threat to the country--big government or big business--52 percent of moderates chose big government, while 41 percent said big business. Among liberals, just 28 percent chose big government while more than two-thirds (66 percent) picked big business. Sixty-four percent of moderates agreed with the statement "government is often an obstacle to economic growth and opportunity," while just 40 percent of liberals saw government as impeding economic growth. Almost two-thirds of moderates agree that "government has created too many incentives for poor people not to work." Not surprisingly, just 31 percent of liberals agree with that statement.

More importantly, moderates are evenly divided on the question of which party they think is more focused on economic growth: 43 percent say Democrats, 40 percent pick Republicans. At a time of deep-seated pessimism about the economy, the party that can capture the mantle of "economic growth" will be the party that wins the White House.

To be sure, moderate voters are called moderates because they balance themselves between the two extremes. They can be just as turned off by conservative over-reach as liberal excess. The key to winning their vote is to appeal to their pragmatic nature. The question now for Democrats is whether the liberal voices overtake the pragmatic ones in 2016.