Anyone tracking the positions of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates would think there weren’t any moderates left in the party. Sen. Kamala Harris of California reiterated at a nationally televised town hall last month that her cosponsorship of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all legislation would mean the abolition of private insurance. Five leading candidates endorsed a Green New Deal that imposes a top-down revolution of American society to mitigate the impact of climate change.
But when you look at the polls breaking down the actual Democratic electorate, you’ll find limited support for such socialist-minded schemes. Broaden out to the overall electorate, and it’s easy to see how Democrats could be giving President Trump a lifeline to a second term despite his widespread unpopularity.
“We are on an out-of-control roller-coaster going 100 miles per hour, and we have no functioning brake,” said one liberal Democratic strategist who is alarmed by the rising tide of socialism within the party. “No one is leading, and that void could not be more clear.”
What’s so remarkable about this rapid leftward shift is that it’s working against the party’s best interests—both for the individual candidates and their chances of defeating Trump next year. So many candidates are trying to fill the most progressive lane of the party that they’re splitting that share of the vote evenly. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that many rank-and-file Democrats are looking for a pragmatist who can actually win the presidency.
One of the most valuable deep dives into the American electorate is the Pew political typology survey, which in 2017 broke down the various constituencies within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Among the Democrats, it identified four groups: Solid Liberals (19 percent of the overall electorate), Opportunity Democrats (13 percent), Disaffected Democrats (14 percent), and the Devout and Diverse (9 percent). Only the Solid Liberals were down-the-line progressives. The remaining two-thirds of Democrats held ideologically diverse views, with some unapologetic free-marketers alongside others holding more traditional cultural viewpoints.
The most telling questions came in the economic portion of the survey. It found most Democrats agreed on a generous social-safety net but were split on the meritocratic view that Americans can get ahead through hard work. The party was also divided on whether to raise taxes on wealthier Americans making $250,000 a year. (Only 23 percent of Solid Liberals said taxes on the wealthy should be kept the same or lowered; at least 45 percent of every other Democratic constituency agreed.)
The strain of economic pessimism is coursing through mainstream Democratic dogma, from Stacey Abrams’s State of the Union response to the various soak-the-rich economic plans seeking to redistribute wealth from the top to the bottom. This, despite economic data showing historically low unemployment and rising American wages. If there isn’t an economic downturn within the next 18 months, the doom-and-gloom rhetoric will sound downright retro—out of the Walter Mondale 1984 playbook against Ronald Reagan.
At a broader level, there is still a significant share of moderate and conservative Democrats in national and state surveys. Gallup found 47 percent of Democrats identify with the centrist wing of the party. FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr., in a compelling breakdown of Democratic moderates, found at least a quarter of Democrats identified as moderate or conservative in every single primary where exit or entrance polls were conducted.
What’s so intriguing about Bacon’s analysis is the demographic diversity of the self-identified moderates. Separate Pew Research Center polling found that they run the gamut from African-American and Hispanic voters (43 percent) to blue-collar whites (30 percent) and college-educated whites (16 percent). Bacon rightly concludes that it could be difficult for one pragmatic candidate (save for perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden) to cobble a coalition with such disparate interests.
At the same time, it underscores the self-destructive approach that the two leading nonwhite candidates (Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey) are pursuing. By virtue of their compelling biographies, Harris and Booker could easily run to the middle and win over both nonwhite liberals and the majority of Democratic moderates who aren’t blue-collar whites. It’s a broad, potent constituency. Instead, by pandering to the activist Left, they’re creating an opening for someone like Biden or Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to run a more mainstream campaign—and make a popular pitch for electability.
The Democratic march leftward is reminiscent of the nihilistic tea-party lurch after Barack Obama’s election. The grassroots energy helped Republicans win back the House but hobbled the GOP’s attempts at a united front against Obama in his 2012 reelection. Democrats are now worried they are facing a similarly destructive dynamic—and their leading presidential candidates are all too eagerly following suit.