In the current election cycle, bets on moderation have few takers. Leading Democratic candidates are supporting bold progressive policy initiatives that are supported by liberal primary voters but may prove to be a tough sell to the general electorate. President Trump and his Republican allies will certainly try to use these initiatives against their Democratic rivals. They have in fact already begun to do so.
A number of Democratic presidential candidates, for example, are calling for the elimination of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and they have declared themselves in favor of such multibillion dollar programs as Medicare for all and a Green New Deal. Growing numbers are supportive of reparations to compensate black Americans for the costs of slavery and segregation.
Why are these candidates willing to buck political tradition and heighten the risk of defeat on Nov. 3, 2020?
Here is one answer, from Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi:
Democrats contain much more heterogeneity across social groups than the more homogeneous white, Christian conservative Republican Party. To the extent the Democratic Party needs to entice and accommodate African-Americans, Latinos, environmentalists, etc. as voters, their candidates need to start embracing boutique policies for these groups that may not align with a general election “median voter” model of espousing moderate national policies.
The issue of reparations illuminates the heterogeneity of the Democratic electorate. There are two surveys on reparations, a May 2016 Marist Poll and a July 2018 poll by the liberal group Data for Progress. Both produced similar results.
The Marist survey found overwhelming opposition among whites in response to the question
As a way to make up for the harm caused by slavery and other forms of racial discrimination, do you think the United States should or should not pay reparations, that is, should or should not pay money to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves?
Whites were opposed 81-15. Latinos were split, with 46 percent in support and 47 percent opposed. African-American voters support reparations, 58-35.
The Data for Progress survey found sharp partisan divisions on the issue of reparations. Democrats supported reparations across the board: whites 37.8 to 30.5 percent; blacks 58.5 to 15.0 percent; Hispanics, 49.9 to 18.3 percent. Independents were opposed, 41.0 to 22.8 percent. Republicans were decisively in opposition, 77.1 to 8.9 percent.
Among all voters, opposition to reparations was nearly twice as large as support, 47.1 to 26.4 percent.
For the Democrats running for president, African-American backing is crucial both in the primaries and in the general election.
Nationally, black voters in 2016 cast about one of every four ballots in Democratic primaries. In four states, African-Americans cast the majority of votes: 71 percent in Mississippi, 61 percent in South Carolina, 54 percent in Alabama and 51 percent in Georgia.
Senator Elizabeth Warren posing for photos with diners at The Senator’s Place, a restaurant in Cleveland, Miss. CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times
Let’s look at another progressive initiative. In August 2018, AP-NORC asked voters if they support or oppose “abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE?” 41 percent opposed abolition and 24 percent supported it.
Medicare for all and the Green New Deal pose a subtler dilemma for Democratic candidates. In the abstract, voters are supportive; the problems arise when the same voters are told key details, including costs.
The best example of this is Medicare for all. In March, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that a majority supported “a national health plan or Medicare-for-all plan,” 56-39, but support vacillates in both directions depending on how the program is portrayed.
If, for example, Democrats posit that Medicare for all would eliminate health care premiums and reduce out of pocket costs, support rises to 67 percent with 30 percent opposed.
Conversely, if Republicans succeed in portraying the program as leading to delays in getting medical treatment, or to the elimination of current private coverage, or to higher taxes, support collapses to the mid-20s and mid-30s, with opposition shooting up to the 60 to 70 percent range.
Bold progressive stands may be risky in general elections, but recent research suggests that policy radicalism pays off in primaries.
In a forthcoming paper, “Policy Over Party: Comparing the effects of candidate ideology and party on affective polarization,” Yphtach Lelkes, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that voters in primary elections prefer candidates who are willing to take more extreme positions.
“Partisans are reacting most favorably toward ideological extremists,” Lelkes wrote in an email:
In fact, moderates are punished for the policies. Extreme politicians in the vein of Mike Lee and Elizabeth Warren, are rated roughly 20-25 points higher (on a 0 to 100 scale) by party identifiers than ideologically moderate politicians in the vein of Susan Collins and Joe Manchin. These effects are even larger among ideologically extreme respondents — the kind that vote in primary elections.
Lelkes conducted experiments that asked participants to rate a number of hypothetical candidates, including a moderate Democrat, an “ideologically extreme” liberal Democrat, a moderate Republican and an “ideologically extreme” conservative Republican.
He found that the most ideologically committed voters — who are disproportionately represented in primaries and caucuses — strongly preferred more extreme candidates:
The impact of policy cues was particularly strong among respondents who themselves held strong policy positions. If a respondent was told that candidate held extreme in-party views, ideologically extreme respondents registered feeling thermometer ratings 35.89 points warmer than ideologically neutral respondents.
If we are to decrease affective polarization in the United States, we need politicians that are politically moderate. Unfortunately, voters prefer politicians of their own party that are politically extreme. This incentivizes extreme political candidates, which will only exacerbate current tensions.
There are dangers for both parties is these trends, Lelkes argues, citing a 2015 study of House elections, “What Happens When Extremists Win Primaries?” by Andrew Hall, a political scientist at Stanford.
Hall found that when a more extreme candidate beats a moderate in the primary
the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9—13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35—54 percentage points.
Gallup data shows the steady ascendance within Democratic ranks of self-identified ideological liberals and a parallel decline in the share of Democrats who say they are moderate or conservative. From 1973 to 2018, as I have noted before, the percentage of Democrats who say they are liberal has grown from 25 to 51 percent, while the share of moderates has fallen from 48 to 31 percent, and the share of conservatives has dropped from 25 to 13 percent.
A 2014 Pew study showed a steady process of ideological consolidation among both Republicans and Democrats since 1994, although consolidation accelerated most rapidly on the left:
The share of Democrats who are liberal on all or most value dimensions has nearly doubled from just 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent today. The share who are consistently liberal has quadrupled from just 5 percent to 23 percent over the past 20 years.
In a reflection of their importance in primaries, “consistently liberal” Democrats turned out in elections at a 70 percent rate, compared with 47 percent for “mostly liberal” Democrats and 41 percent for Democrats with “mixed views,” according to Pew data.
These and other trends, according to Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the liberal New America think tank, represent the changing the mind-set of the Democratic electorate. In an email, Drutman wrote:
Two related dynamics are operative. One, Democratic voters have moved to the left in response to Trump, and are eager for policies that signal transformative change, not just incrementalism. There is no return to normalcy, because the past is now seen as more flawed.
This dynamic has intensified because the most engaged Democrats, Drutman writes,
have bought into an argument that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she was too incrementalist, and had she gone a little bolder and promised something more exciting than her competence and experience, she might have won.
The second dynamic, Drutman continued, is that
in a crowded field, candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves with grass-roots energy. A very effective way of generating grass-roots energy is attaching to transformative changes these policies signal. Incrementalism and moderation doesn’t generate much excitement among the activists or in coverage from journalists who are responsible for driving candidate buzz in these early stages.
In a similar analysis, John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, argues that
On race and immigration in particular, I think Trump is pushing Democrats to the left. To be clear, Hillary Clinton was already to Obama’s left even in 2016. But I think Trump’s rhetoric and agenda has made conservative positions on race and immigration even more anathema to Democrats.
Sides also pointed out that the incentives for Democratic candidates have shifted:
It used to be the case that Democratic candidates had to moderate on racial issues to maintain a Democratic coalition that included both blacks and some racially conservative whites. But the Democratic coalition has changed: it is increasingly made up of not only nonwhites but whites who espouse racially liberal attitudes.
In an argument elaborating on a point made by Drutman, Edward Carmines, a political scientist at Indiana University, made the case that the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton fostered the shift to the left:
If a moderate policy agenda cannot guarantee electoral victory why downplay your leftward policy orientations in the unlikely event that it will jeopardize your electoral success?
Trump’s success has reinforced this perspective. He won with a very right-wing policy agenda. Perhaps a left-wing set of proposals can lead Democrats to similar success.
Carmines believes that “both of these premises are mistaken and could very well lead Democrats to electoral defeat when victory is within sight.”
Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, argues that the liberal tilt of the Democratic candidates is, in fact, a rational political strategy. “There is real change afoot with the most recent generations,” she wrote, citing a Pew study released in January:
Young Republicans are especially different from older Republicans and the Democratic Party is likely to regard such findings as an invitation to poach more liberal young Republicans.
Strong partisans, however, Huddy writes, “are unlikely to defect from the party in 2020 regardless of its issue agenda,” and political independents
are younger, on average, than partisans. Appealing to young voters thus makes political sense when it comes to the general 2020 presidential election.
Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C.CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, has a somewhat different take on the changing character of the Democratic electorate and the party’s presidential candidates.
The candidates, Jacobson wrote by email, “are playing to their activist base whose enthusiasm helped produce their House victory in 2018.”
He warned, however, that “leaning left does carry risks; there are not enough liberals (or progressives, if you prefer) to form a majority nationally or in the Electoral College.”
In contemporary presidential campaigns, according to Jacobson,
the tricky thing is that in an era of extremely high party line voting, turnout becomes enormously important. Trump has proven to be a great mobilizer of Democrats, but they still have to consider how enthusiastic ordinary Democrats will be about their nominee.
Trump, Jacobson noted, will
try to mobilize his base by ranting about “socialism” and of course some potential Democratic candidates will be more vulnerable to that charge than others.
The strategic choices facing prospective Democratic nominees are, in the view of Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., even more complex and subtle than those described by Jacobson.
Taking very liberal stands on contested issues, she wrote me,
might not pose “significant risks” if you think your minimum winning coalition of voters is made up of people who either share your preferences on these things, or for whom these policies are not pivotal in their vote decision.
There are people for whom these issues are important, but for whom there’s no position a Democrat could take that would make them decide not to vote for that Democrat. There are other people, presumably, for whom these issues are so important and their preferences so intense, that any Democrat who takes a position far from their own is a Democrat for whom they won’t vote. It depends which type of people you think are in your winning coalition as to whether you stake out positions on these things.
Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication, public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern and editor in chief of the journal Environmental Communication, addressed only the support for a Green New Deal by some Democratic candidates. His view is pessimistic.
In an email, he wrote:
The Green New Deal has done damage to the Democratic Party’s chances heading into the 2020 elections, while hurting efforts to build momentum on behalf of climate and energy policy options capable of passing during an era of enduring divided government.
In an article in the spring edition of Issues in Science and Technology, Nisbet contends that the goal of Green New Dealers
is not to broker cross-alliances between the center-right, center-left, and left wing, drawing on the best ideas that those factions can offer, but rather to build progressive power.
In an interesting development, the momentum behind the more radical Democratic agenda has turned both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi into defenders of the party’s old guard.
Pelosi, who has been trying with mixed success to tamp down the left wing of the House Democratic caucus, recently described her views on Medicare for all in an interview with The Washington Post.
At first she said, “I’m agnostic. Show me how you think you can get there.” But then she cautioned:
So we’ll have hearings, again, let’s see what it is. Right now it’s a $30 trillion price tag. What do people get for that in terms of care, and what do they pay for that along the way?
Implicit in her comment is the belief that $30 trillion is not acceptable to the American public.
Obama, speaking at a town hall in Germany earlier this month, warned of the dangers of uncompromising ideology for the progressive wing of his party:
One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States — maybe it’s true here as well — is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Uh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be,’ and then we start sometimes creating what’s called a ‘circular firing squad,’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues. And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.
For the moment, both Obama and Pelosi are having minimal influence as far as the leftward thrust of the Democratic presidential nomination goes.
Three years ago, Trump threw out conventional wisdom and went on to win the nomination and the presidency. Maybe, this time around, Democrats can gamble successfully on a similar strategy and win. Or maybe not.
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Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to The Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post. @edsall
The New York Times · by Thomas B. Edsall · April 10, 2019