Do Democrats Need a Progressive to Excite the Base?

Our recent electoral history suggests they don’t.

In December, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich released a video arguing that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren represent the Democrats’ best chance of beating Donald Trump in 2020. The Clinton alum’s reasoning was that only progressive candidates have the big ideas and grassroots energy necessary to drive high enough voter turnout to send Trump packing. Michael Moore has made a similar argument. The Democrats, he said, will win when they “put somebody on that ballot that excites the base,” which he doesn’t believe will support “a centrist, moderate candidate.”

On its face, the theory is appealing. Sanders and Warren have impressive, small-donor driven fundraising totals; they draw huge crowds at their events; and they offer a strong contrast to Trump. As a progressive who would love to see universal health care and higher taxes on the wealthy, I wish it were as easy as nominating the most progressive candidate. But upon closer examination, this theory does not stand up to scrutiny.

Reich and Moore assume that enthusiasm for progressive policy ideas—or the candidates who promote them—will result in electoral victory. Yet history has shown that moderate Democrats generally fare better against Republicans than more progressive candidates. Of course, no one can predict the future, but the smart money says that a moderate is more likely to beat Trump in 2020.

Proponents who think a progressive excite the base more often mistake the visible enthusiasm of a candidates’ supporters for widespread appeal. It’s easy see photos of Sanders or Warren events, or their passionate social media followings, and assume they represent the party’s  best chance of winning in 2020. But crowd sizes and Facebook posts can be misleading. The kind of voters who are more likely to be drawn to Sanders and Warren—younger and seeking revolutionary change—are the kind of people more likely to attend a rally or be prolific on social media. Just because a candidate has large rallies, or a rabid social media following, doesn’t mean he or she has the largest base of support. In a way, Bernie Sanders is a like semi-popular band whose loyal followers wrongly assume their own level of enthusiasm is shared by others.

In fact, the numbers show that no matter how vocal progressives may be, the majority of Democratic voters as a whole are simply not that progressive. According to the Pew Research Center, self-identified liberals make up 46 percent of the party while self-identified moderate or conservative Democrats represent 53 percent.

Democratic voters are largely united in shared priorities and big picture goals, but they are divided on the kind of policy proposals that distinguish candidates like Sanders and Warren from more moderate Democrats like Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar. According to Gallup polling, 78 percent of Democrats or Democrat-leaning voters believe the federal government’s should ensure that all Americans have health insurance. But further polling reveals that only 44 percent support a single government program.

In the current Democratic primary, both Sanders and Warren (who support Medicare for All) are trailing Joe Biden (who doesn’t) even though they each have twice as many individual donors. If Reich and Moore’s theory was right, Sanders and Warren would be crushing Biden today.

As University of Denver professor and regular FiveThirtyEight contributor Seth Masket has explained, in an analysis based primarily on Congressional elections, “moderate candidates simply tend to do better in general elections” than more ideologically extreme candidates in either party. A study of House races from 1980 to 2010 found that when a more progressive Democrat or conservative Republican narrowly defeated a moderate in a primary, that party’s probability of winning the general election decreases between 35 and 54 percent.

The 2018 midterms proved this to be true. Not one of the 41 Democrats who flipped a seat blue was endorsed by the Sanders affiliated Our Revolution or Justice Democrats. As Lanae Erickson of Third Way has explained, those candidates won by running on widely popular issues issues like “reducing the cost of health care, raising wages and cleaning up corruption in Washington. And the only two candidates who ran ads on single-payer health care in swing districts lost despite the Democratic wave.”

Most notably, for all the talk of how a Democratic nominee must drive voter turnout, the Democrats who flipped seats in 2018 did so primarily by winning back votes rather than by turning out new voters. According to the data firm Catalist, even though there were 14.4 million new voters in 2018 who supported Democrats by a 60 percent to percent margin, changing voter choice accounted for 4.5 percent of the 5.0 percent shift in Democrat’s favor from 2016 to 2018. In other words, Trump voters who supported Democrats in 2018 were 90 percent responsible for the blue wave while increased turnout was 10 percent responsible. Why shouldn’t Democrats try to follow the same path to success in 2020?

Of course, there is much less data for presidential elections than for House races, so it is risky to make assumptions about the former based on the latter. As Masket notes, “recent studies [of presidential elections] suggest that the role of ideology may be overstated there – partisans close ranks almost no matter who is the nominee.”

But the few data points we do have for recent presidential elections cut in favor of nominating a more moderate Democrat against Trump. Barack Obama was a historic candidate in 2008, but he wasn’t particularly progressive. Nearly every Democrat in the 2020 race is running to the left of Obama. Nor was Bill Clinton pushing the progressive boundaries when he beat incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Every election is different. We can’t assume progressive candidates won’t succeed now because they haven’t before.  But if we are going to have the “electability” conversation, the truth must be told. The bulk of historical evidence, including the 2018 midterm elections, makes the case that a moderate Democrat is best positioned to beat Trump.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.