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Donald Trump is a moderate. That doesn't mean what you think.

Statistically, Donald Trump is perhaps the most moderate Republican, but a purely mathematical approach shows the limits of ideological sorting.

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    Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (l.) Sunday in North Las Vegas, Nevada, Donald Trump in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, and Ted Cruz (r.) Monday in Las Vegas. In South Carolina last weekend, exit polls showed Trump comfortably beat both his closest rivals Senators Cruz and Rubio among evangelical voters, despite their more consistent appeals to Christian values.
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Is Donald Trump a moderate Republican?

Yes, he probably is. But the nature of his “moderation” shows the limits of ideological sorting. In the end, putting politicians (and voters) on a tidy left-to-right scale may not tell us as much as we think it does.

Mr. Trump’s opponents are eager to stick him with the moderate label. In their telling he is a squish, a suspect conservative, Bernie Sanders in disguise. A recent Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas ad shows kids playing with a Trump action figure. Asked what the doll does, its owner replies, “He pretends to be a Republican!” Everyone laughs.

This charge is partly based on suspicion. Donald Trump had Bill and Hillary Clinton attend his wedding, grumble some on the right. He’s donated to Democrats. Surely that means he’s a leftist plant.

But it’s also based on real Trump positions. The Donald is to the left of the GOP on trade, as he explicitly favors protectionism. He’s opposed to reductions in Social Security and Medicare. He favors allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest – an exception Senator Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida oppose.

Trump says little about gay rights. He’s harshly criticized President George W. Bush for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That remains heretical in today’s GOP.

“Summing everything together, I’d say Trump is most moderate GOP candidate left in the race,” tweeted Harry Enten, senior political analyst at the FiveThirtyEight data site, in late February.

But here’s the catch: You can reach a moderate result by averaging extreme points of data. One plus nine divided by two equals five. And on some issues, Trump is so far to the right it takes a telescope to see the center fielder.

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The obvious example is immigration, with his proposed Mexican-financed border wall and ban on the entry of Muslim citizens. Trump has also vowed to go far beyond waterboarding, defined by the Pentagon as torture, in dealing with terrorism suspects. He’s talked about “taking out” the wives and children of ISIS members.

As this shows, it’s possible to be extreme on individual issues, but ideologically moderate in general. That’s the case with many, if not most, “moderate” voters. Their separate positions are mixed-up, ideologically-speaking. They’re for big tax cuts, say, but against greater involvement in Syria. Or they oppose gay marriage but support increasing Social Security. The result is middle-of-the-road.

United States voters don’t care whether politicians are moderate per se. They do care about politicians backing their own mixed bag of positions. That may be a secret of Trump’s ideologically diverse appeal.

“Many voters want a candidate with eclectic but extreme positions on key issues, especially the very ones where Trump has staked out extreme stances,” wrote political scientists Doug Ahler of the University of California at Berkeley and David Broockman of Stanford University on this subject in The Washington Post last December.

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