Off to the Races

Are Democrats Dominated by the Left? Don't Be So Sure.

For all the attention liberals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren get, many Democrats—and the new House members who gave them the majority—remain closer to the middle.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at an event to advocate for the Paycheck Fairness Act on the 10th anniversary of President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, at the Capitol on Jan. 30
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 14, 2019, 8 p.m.

From much of the media coverage these days, you would think that the undisputed leaders of the Democratic Party are freshman Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and—of course—Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, even though the constituents that elected them are limited to the 14th District of New York and the states of Massachusetts and Vermont.

There is little doubt that the Democratic Party is more liberal now than when Bill Clinton was president; it moved left through both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies as well as that of President Trump. All of the talk about Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, and Soak the Rich tax hikes would certainly seem to support that view.

But just how far left has it moved, and does that mean that Democrats are likely to pick a presidential nominee from the most liberal wing of their party? From the tone of much of the media coverage, the answer is unquestionably yes, but I’m not so sure. I think it remains an open question that won’t be answered until Democrats start voting a little less than a year from now.

There is some evidence that the leftward shift in the Democratic Party may not be quite as big as advertised. A Jan. 9-14 national survey by the Pew Research Center asked a sample of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic the question, “Would you like to see Democratic leaders in Washington move in a more liberal direction or a more moderate direction?” Forty percent of respondents chose the more-liberal response, 54 percent picked more moderate. If you are curious, when the parallel question was asked among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 57 percent said they wanted GOP leaders in Washington to move in a more conservative direction, 39 percent more moderate.

My hunch is that we are seeing two other things happening. First, the single most unifying force in the Democratic Party is Trump, who is every bit as vilified among Democrats as Obama was among Republicans during his tenure in the White House. That disdain for Trump is causing a level of pragmatism that is offsetting a more broad leftward tilt in the party. A Jan. 25-27 national poll by Monmouth University, spotlighted by David Leonhardt in The New York Times this week, asked Democrats and those independents who lean Democratic, “Which type of candidate would you prefer if you had to make a choice between: a Democrat you agree with on most issues but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump or a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump?”

Just 33 percent preferred a candidate that they mostly agree with but would have a more difficult time beating Trump, while a whopping 56 percent said they would go along with a candidate that they did not agree with on most issues but would be more electable. As my Cook Political Report colleague Amy Walter argues, Democrats may have preferences for their party’s nomination, but they don’t have strong attachments. Simply put, they want to win—they want Trump out of the White House and are willing to compromise a good bit to ensure that happens.

I would argue that something else may be happening as well. While yes, Ocasio-Cortez and Warren are getting a lot of coverage and have built something of a following in the Democratic Party, there is another growth sector in the party. How did Democrats win control of the House last year? Where did Democrats capture seats and who provided them their victory margins? Democrats gained previously Republican seats last year in the suburbs—for example, outside of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and the district in and around Oklahoma City. And they swept four seats in Orange County, California. It was college-educated women who turbocharged those gains. Disproportionately, many of the Democratic candidates who did well last year—winning or coming close in difficult districts—were military veterans and people from law enforcement backgrounds, particularly prosecutors. Some were no doubt liberal, but based on Republicans having previously held many of those districts, mostly not. We could throw in Kyrsten Sinema winning an open Senate seat in Arizona running a very centrist campaign.

This is not to argue that the Democratic Party is becoming a centrist party again; there is not much evidence that the center-left, business friendly Democratic Leadership Council has been resurrected. But there may be more than one thing going on in the Democratic Party, no matter how much the media is pushing the AOC-Warren meme.

While I think the chances are quite small that Sanders is going to win the nomination, and Warren is finding that getting traction is a bit more difficult than some might have guessed, there is no doubt that Democrats will go left of center—but how far left, we likely won’t know until April, May, or June of next year.

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