Why Democrats Still Need Moderates

The country’s moving left, but not fast enough for Democrats to ignore their right flank.

The roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package moving through the Senate lacks the big ticket items many progressive activists want, leaving them “caught somewhere between deflated and enraged,” as Politico recently reported. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York, threatened to torpedo the bill if it doesn’t move in tandem with a $3.5 trillion follow-up package addressing progressives’ priorities.

Ocasio-Cortez’s disappointment is understandable. The world is literally on fire from the crisis of climate change, while four years of cruelty and incompetence under the Trump Administration have left millions of Americans suffering. Progressives are impatient to address not only climate change, but also Medicare expansion, free college, student debt cancellation, and immigration reform.

But Democrats can’t escape the cold realities of electoral math. Conservative voters still vastly outnumber liberals, especially in the states that will determine who controls the Senate after the 2022 midterms. Democratic Senate incumbents face especially tough races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire (all currently rated by the Cook Political Report as “leaning Democratic”), where conservatives and moderates make up an overwhelming majority of the electorate.

To keep control of the Senate, Democrats must hold together the liberal-moderate coalition that won them the White House and control of Congress. This means winning a majority of moderates in these key states – and a super-majority in some cases – to overcome conservatives’ built-in numerical advantages. As maddening as it is for a left that’s impatient for bold action, Biden’s more cautious strategy is still the smartest way to safeguard Democrats’ current razor-thin majority in Congress.

America is still more center-right than center-left. Though fewer voters today self-identify as “conservative,” and more voters consider themselves “liberal,” conservatives still outnumber liberals nationally. Even in the bluest of blue states—California and New York—the share of liberals barely pulls even with conservatives, according to 2020 exit polls.

Progressives can take comfort that the electorate is moving their way. In 1992, 43 percent of Americans said they were conservative, according to Gallup, compared to 17 percent who identified as liberal and 36 percent as moderate. By 2020, 36 percent self-identified as “conservative,” compared to 25 percent who said they were “liberal” and 35 percent who said they were “moderate.” The nation is becoming more liberal, but liberals are still short of a plurality.

Kim, August 7 Graph 1

Source: Gallup

In five of the eight states projected to have the most competitive Senate races next year (and for which 2020 exit polls are available), conservatives enjoy even larger advantages than they do nationally, outnumbering liberals by margins approaching two to one.

In Arizona, for instance, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is defending his seat, liberals make up 22 percent of voters, compared to 42 percent who self-identify as conservative. In newly blue Georgia, where Sen. Raphael Warnock won a special election last November with 51.0 percent of the vote, conservatives likewise outnumber liberals 40 percent to 22 percent. The narrowest margin is in New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”), where 32 percent of voters identified as conservative in 2020, versus 24 percent as liberals. Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan won her seat in 2016 by just 1,106 votes, and could face an equally tough race next fall.

Kim, August 7, Graph 2 Democrats can’t win simply by turning out the base. It’s mathematically impossible. Instead, they must rely on a coalition of liberals and moderates to achieve a majority.

Winning moderates was key to Democrats’ 2020 successes, including the victory of Joe Biden. Among suburban voters, 54 percent voted for Biden in 2020, compared to just 45 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden also won 52 percent of Independents (versus 42 percent for Clinton). In the House, Democratic candidates won 64 percent of moderates in 2020, according to exit polls, compared to 52 percent in 2016.

Republicans can get away with extremist tactics that play to their base because they’re so much less dependent on the moderate vote to win. (Indeed, Trump certainly seems to be working overtime lately to persuade moderate voters that he’s completely lost his mind, even as Biden is scoring political victories—most especially, thus far, on infrastructure.)

Republicans can win the Senate in 2022 without winning a majority of moderates. Democrats, by contrast, can’t.  Democrats can’t reasonably expect to keep the Senate unless they can win a strong majority of moderates in the seats they’re defending. Nor can they reasonably expect to flip seats now occupied by vulnerable or retiring Republicans absent supermajority moderate support. In Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states with the strongest possibilities for a Democratic pickup, the plurality of voters are moderates.

The following chart illustrates the simple math that Democrats are up against next fall in the eight states that (as of this writing) could decide control of the Senate: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (I conducted a similar exercise in 2010.)

Kim, August 5, Chart 3As I discovered, the moderates that either party must win to earn 50.1 percent of the total vote, assuming that 2022 candidates match their presidential candidate’s performance in these states among liberals and conservatives according to 2020 exit polls are not the same.

For instance, if defending Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wins the same share of liberals and conservatives that Biden did in 2020 (89 percent and 12 percent), she’ll need to win 63 percent of moderates to win 50.1 percent of the vote. Her Republican opponent, on the other hand, will need to win only 44 percent of moderates to flip the seat (assuming they match Trump’s 2020 performance with conservatives and liberals), simply because conservatives outnumber liberals in the state.

In each of the four races likely to be the most competitive for Democratic incumbents, candidates must win a super-majority of moderates to secure a majority of the vote, ranging from 72 percent in Arizona to 59 percent in New Hampshire. The same is true if Democrats are eyeing pickups in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where incumbent Republicans are retiring (or likely to do so), and in Florida, where Republican Sen. Marco Rubio faces a formidable challenge from Democratic House Rep. Val Demings.

Republicans, on the other hand, have the luxury of a larger base and can win or flip seats without similar margins. In Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, they need to win only 37 percent of moderates to win. In North Carolina, the winning threshold is just 35 percent.

Granted, exit polls are not perfect; the actual ideological makeup of these swing states might differ by a percentage point or two, as might the actual performance of Biden and Trump by voter ideology.

Progressives are fully justified, on the merits, to challenge Biden on his priorities. The administration shouldn’t take their support for granted, nor should it lose sight of the progressive ideals that underpin its actions thus far. But we all need to keep in mind that the coalition supporting Biden is a fragile one, and that alienating the Democrats’ more conservative wing could spell disaster in 2022. A Biden administration that loses control of Congress in 2023 will achieve far less than the one we have today.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.