Democratic Voters Swing Left, But Moderates Still Have an Edge

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Amy Klobuchar (Image: Flickr)

I urgently hope William Saletan is right in saying in a Slate article that centrist candidates are winning the Democratic presidential primary race this year. He implies that the party will nominate a moderate to head the ticket, and I think that’s vital if Donald Trump is to be beaten. The stakes could not be higher. I think our democracy depends on it.

At the moment signs look favorable. In national polling, the moderates–Joe Biden (with 28 percent in RealClearPolitics.com’s averages), Pete Buttigieg (7.2) Michael Bloomberg (7) and Amy Klobuchar (3)–are running ahead of the left progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (both 20), for a net lead of five points.

In Iowa, the moderates also are running a net 13 points ahead of the progressives. In New Hampshire, though, it’s just five.  In Nevada, the race is within the margin of error. In South Carolina, the moderates lead by 14.

But the voting hasn’t begun and the Democrats could still blow it. If Socialist Sanders or Wealth-Tax Warren ends up the nominee—with platforms well outside mainstream American opinion—Trump could be re-elected. If he is, he’ll feel validated and empowered  to act like a king (beyond the law) and, with Attorney Gen. Barr doing his bidding, investigate or prosecute his political foes.

At the moment, Biden leads Trump nationally by just four points, Sanders by 3. Bloomberg, Warren, and Buttigieg all are basically tied with Trump in head-to-head matchups. In swing states, Biden, Sanders, and Warren have narrow leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Florida is basically tied and so is Wisconsin.

As to the second of Saletan’s theses—that progressives have “won the decade”—he’s only partially right. The Democratic base certainly identifies itself as more liberal—from 27 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Saletan is right about the respect and importance with which Democratic candidates treat minorities and women. They have to, because those groups make up a larger portion of those who identify as Democrats.

On social issues, Democrats definitely are more liberal than they used to be. The percentage of Democrats who say that immigrants make America stronger has risen from 52 in 2009 to 83 percent in 2019. In 2009, 55 percent favored gay marriage. Now, 75 percent do. And the percent believing that the nation must do more to foster black equality has risen from 57 to 83.

On some other issues, Democrats also are overwhelmingly liberal. Seventy-seven percent say they support Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal—though 88 percent support a public option’s being added to Obamacare, the position of Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

However, Saletan is simply wrong when he says that the public option was deemed “unacceptably left wing” in 2009. In fact, the Democratic House’s Obamacare bill that year contained a public option and President Obama favored it. It was killed by the Senate Finance Committee because even Democrats who favored it thought the whole bill would go down in the Senate if it was included. 

The party would do better nominating a candidate who favors the public option than Medicare for All. Among all voters, 53 percent say they support MFA (though the number goes down when they are told private insurance plans would go away), but 65 percent support the public option.

According to a Quinnipiac poll in April, by 60-34 percent voters said they supported Warren’s 2 percent annual tax on wealth over $50 million. But there’s reason to think the number would go down when voters understand the complexity of collecting the tax, its possible unconstitutionality, and the probability that it can’t pass Congress. The same poll found that by 59 percent to 36 percent, voters oppose Sanders’s idea of raising the top income tax rate to 70 percent. 

On climate change, Democratic candidates are more likely than in years past to say it’s an “existential issue” requiring drastic measures, but they are not far out of mainstream opinion. Fifty-six percent of all voters think climate change is an emergency, including 63 percent of Independents.

Saletan doesn’t directly address this question, but his logic more or less implies he thinks that the moderate advantage in 2020  is not the wave of the party’s future and progressivism is. The media’s lionization of the four-member left-wing “squad” in the House would suggest that’s right.

But the fact is that the moderate New Democrat Caucus chaired by Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer is larger than the House Progressive Caucus. And Democrats’ 2018 takeover of the House was made possible by moderate candidates’ winning seats formerly held by Republicans.

Moreover, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a canny politician if there ever was one, has switched from being a “San Francisco liberal” in 2009 to now being a relative moderate who shows disdain for the “squad.”

Whether left-progressivism or relative moderation ends up being the party’s ultimate identity obviously is yet to be determined. But for 2020—and hopes of beating Trump—I desperately hope Saletan is right about moderates’ now being dominant. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. I think Mort’s piece adds much to the William Saletan article he sites and comments on. He provides some good context for the tension between the progressive and more conservative wings of the party. His emphases on supporting a more moderate candidate is more viable in winning over white suburbs in the swing states to the democrats.
    But there needs to be more written about how any moderate candidate will be perceived as going back to a government that is more bureaucratic, and hence perceived as not responsive to populist feelings that are representative of blue collar concerns in those same states. That is the strong attraction that Sanders and Warren have on the old democratic base, and one that the old guard, including Joe Biden, are seen as not challenging.
    I believe this tension among democrats is what an effective presidential candidate needs to resolve in order to maximize the voter turnout for them.

  2. Obviously, the party is quite divided between a polarized left activist AOC wing (younger voters, educated white progressives) that is growing, and what we might call a more moderately progressive Obama wing (suburban white moderates, older POC), that is slowly shrinking. Both contingents are sizable, but the latter cohort remains larger than the former, still, though you wouldn’t know to read the national media (or social media). So, if it were a one-on-one, head to head match up, a moderate progressive would more likely than not best a left activist (see Clinton over Sanders, 2016).

    But a crowded field where holding 25 or 30 percent support in the early states could slingshot someone the nomination, there’s a plausible pathway to victory on either track. Given the division within the party. what seems to be most important to doing well is that a candidate clearly picks a side of the divide, speaks directly to that constituency, and uses the other side as a foil to establish his or her ideological identity. Sanders and Warren have been doing that from the get go — they’ve had no qualms about embracing the polarized activist side in the intra-party battle, while belittling moderates as sellouts and quislings — and have benefitted as a result. Meanwhile, for most of this campaign the moderate progressives were too mealy mouthed or cowed by the reigning (but tendentious) media narrative (“all the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left”) that they tried desperately to blur the distinction or straddle the chasm between the two sides. They ran towards Liz and Bernie, not away from them.

    That’s how you get the incoherent catastrophe that was the Harris campaign, but Buttigieg and Klobuchar were trying to do the same thing, and even Biden too, though to a lesser degree. That’s part of the reason why Booker didn’t go anywhere, despite his compelling personal attributes — quick, can you tell from his campaign which side of that divide he was on? — and why Beto, another moderate progressive who foolishly tried and failed to reinvent himself as a left activist, flamed out.

    That’s what has changed in the last couple of months; Buttigieg was the first to demonstrate (by contrasting against the Warren/Sanders left in his Iowa tv ads) that you can make electoral gains by fully embracing the moderate progressive side of the split, and using the left activists as a convenient foil to show where you stand. Now Bloomberg, Klobuchar and Biden have following suit.

    So tit is only recently where the campaign (FINALLY) got real — starting in the fall, when the left center began to hit back at the left wing that has been hitting them all along. I don’t know which side is going to win this fight; I freely admit that I have no idea which of the major candidates is going to emerge as the nominee, but at least now it is game on.

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