Democratic Voters Are Putting Electability Over Ideology

It looks like my suspicion that Democratic voters are in no mood for ideological purity is correct.

The poll also asked registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents about their party’s nomination process.  In considering who should be their party’s standard bearer, a majority of 56% prefer someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.  Just 33% say they would prefer a nominee who they are aligned with on the issues even if that person would have a hard time beating Trump.  Democratic women (61%) are more likely than men (45%) to say they would put their policy positions aside in order to get a nominee who could beat Trump.

“In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee. It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump. This is something to pay close attention to when primary voters really start tuning into the campaign,” said [Patrick] Murray, [the director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute].

This is why I don’t agree that some kind of ascendant socialism or millennial-driven enthusiasm will have an outsized role in determining the winner of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process. You might come to that conclusion if you spend a lot of time online looking at passionate blog posts and infuriated tweets, but most Democratic voters are more concerned with winning than with finding a candidate who can check all of their boxes.

Obviously, this runs contrary to a lot of common wisdom which holds that the Democrats are moving sharply to the left and are desperate for confrontation and open resistance from their leaders. This is supposed to mirror the mood of the Republican electorate in the 2015-16 cycle. There are no doubt many similarities to be found between the two periods, but consider the standing of Republican congressional leaders, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, during Obama’s second term and compare it to Nancy Pelosi’s standing with rank-and-file Democrats today.

It’s important that, at least so far, Pelosi’s style of confrontation and resistance is seen as effective and laudable. Republicans saw Boehner and Cantor as completely ineffective.

That’s not to say that Democrats are thrilled with the performance of the Establishment as a whole, but they aren’t in open rebellion against their own leaders. They’re looking for a new leader who is broadly appealing and can’t be easily caricatured or beaten down. Where they stand on the left, right, or center is of secondary importance to them in this cycle because losing isn’t an option.

This does not mean that Democrats are uninterested in ideology, nor that a centrist or moderate candidate will necessarily have some advantage. All other things being equal, a moderate candidate will be at a disadvantage.  However, a candidate who can successfully project broad non-ideological appeal will be most of the way toward making a winning argument. As I’ve long argued, with the right image and messaging, that candidate can be as progressive as they want to be. But if they are quite obviously alienating wide swaths of winnable voters with either their rhetoric or their policies, that’s going to hurt them badly with Democratic voters.

This election cycle is not going to reward ideological rigidity or radicalism. On the other hand, the winner could wind up being as far out of the historic mainstream as Trump. Anything is possible with the right kind of campaign.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.