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In Politics, what is Triangulation?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Triangulation is a name given to a political act in which a candidate in a traditional continuum-based political system tries to position him or herself outside of the continuum, or perfectly balanced in the middle. It is a relatively recent phenomenon on a large scale, although it has been used to some extent for as long as modern politics have existed.

At its most basic, a candidate trying to utilize triangulation is trying to avoid the pitfalls of placing themselves on either end of the traditional Left-Right political system. As more citizens in a democracy find themselves pulled to various ideologies on both sides, aligning oneself too closely with either end of a spectrum runs the risk of alienating voters by appearing too radicalized.

An added bonus of triangulation is that it allows a candidate to cherry-pick which issues they want to take credit for from both ends of the political spectrum. This means the candidate can, through triangulation, appear to agree with their opponent when it makes political sense to do so, and disagree when public opinion is against the opposing viewpoint.

In 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid against Republican Bob Dole, his chief political advisor, Dick Morris, articulated a new strategy, which he dubbed triangulation. The idea was to shore up Clinton’s weak spots by catering to certain Republican ideas. Since the Republicans had recently taken the House and the Senate, this made a great deal of sense. Political triangulation allowed Clinton to capitalize on his folksy charm and high approval ratings, while also capturing the general public desire for many mainstream Republican ideas and a kneejerk shying away from traditional Democratic ideas.

The most striking example of Clinton’s use of triangulation came during his State of the Union Address in 1996, when he famously announced that the Era of Big Government was over. The Democratic Party had long held that big government was in fact a beneficial thing, and the idea that big government was something to get away from was a very populist Republican idea. Clinton coupled this statement with other ideas traditionally thought of as Republican policies, including tax cuts, balancing the budget, and reforming welfare. This political triangulation in large part allowed him to capture traditionally Republican states, and easily win reelection.

There is a school of thought among many Democrats in the modern political landscape that triangulation is an outdated methodology, a sort of fluke that worked for Bill Clinton, and to some extent later for Republican George Bush, but which radically failed both Al Gore and John Kerry. Both Gore and Kerry attempted to use triangulation during their presidential bids, and both were unsuccessful.

Al Gore spoke of enormous tax cuts, seen by many as a form of triangulation, but this ultimately backfired, leading many to believe he was ceding ground to George Bush’s position. John Kerry later moved towards the center and right on many issues, most notably the Iraq War, and was lambasted by the Right and the media for “flip flopping.”

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Discussion Comments

By aplenty — On Dec 21, 2010

@ GenevaMech- I think one of the biggest reasons that triangulation works is because it shows that a politician is open to new ideas and willing to compromise. As much as people hate one party or the other, they ultimately want to see progress and cooperation. His party took a beating, but he responded by offering olive branches.

Polls show that the president is very popular based on his personality, even if he isn't as popular politically. By moving to the center, and admitting that he was changing his ideologies to respond to the people that elected him show that he has not fallen out of touch with his constituents. By presenting his shift to the center in this fashion, he is not seen as a flip-flopper, but rather a man of compromise. If the right refuses these offers of concession, then they become the villains. By giving a little to the other side, the president has created a win-win situation for himself.

By GenevaMech — On Dec 20, 2010

President Obama is using triangulation with success. After taking a beating during the mid-terms, his administration moved towards the center and put the message out there that his administration got the message. He brokered a deal between republicans and democrats to extend tax cuts for everyone, including doing the unpopular amongst his party and allowing tax cuts for the rich and a reduced estate tax.

The president also took a more liberal stance and pushed the house to present the repeal of don't ask don't tell as its own bill. He has had one of the most successful lame duck sessions in history, passing significant pieces of legislation. He is also likely to get the START treaty passed. He may be a polarizing figure to some, but I think that he is a political genius. He has accomplished quite a few historic feats in his first two years, and he is still rolling even with the shift in power in congress.

By louiei114 — On Nov 21, 2008

did barack obama read a prepared speech during his address before a huge crowd in downtown chicago park right after winning the election?

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