“Triangulation” is when a political candidate presents his or her views as being above and between the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
It’s also sometimes called the “third way.”
This approach is often used by politicians who are trying to win over voters who may be dissatisfied with their current options, or who want to present themselves as pragmatic and moderate.
This shift is usually done in order to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters, especially those in the center or on the other side of the political spectrum.
The goal of triangulation is to build support from voters who may not agree with the traditional positions of the political figure or party, and thereby increase their chances of winning elections.
For example, a political figure who is traditionally associated with the left wing of their party may adopt more conservative positions on certain issues, such as law and order, in order to appeal to centrist voters who are concerned about crime.
This can also be done by taking positions that are more in line with the views of the other political party, such as supporting free trade agreements or tax cuts.
Origin of “Triangulation”
Although the tactic had been used for decades, the term was first used by political consultant Dick Morris while working on the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Morris urged Clinton to adopt a set of policies that were different from the traditional policies of the Democratic Party in order to co-opt the opposition.
One example of Clinton distancing himself from the left of the Democratic party was his Sister Souljah moment.
Morris described triangulation in an interview on Frontline in 2000:
Take the best from each party’s agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party. So from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits.
But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn’t be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers.
Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn’t believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.
Morris also offered a definition in his book Power Plays:
The idea behind triangulation is to work hard to solve the problems that motivate the other party’s voters, so as to defang them politically… The essence of triangulation is to use your party’s solutions to solve the other side’s problems. Use your tools to fix their car.
Use of “Triangulation” in a sentence
The Nation (April 20, 2022): “Clinton and the DLC sincerely believed that market-based micro-solutions—like community development banks, microenterprises, empowerment zones, and charter schools—could address macroeconomic problems. They were not cynical, at least not at first, nor were their proposals mere ‘triangulation’ (that coinage, by pollster Dick Morris, became Clinton’s modus operandi as part of his campaign for a second term).”
Roll Call (June 7, 2016): “Dick Morris rose to prominence after his strategy of triangulation helped Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996 and fell from grace after letting a prostitute listen in on conversations with the president.”
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.