Are the Democrats, as so many people believe, moving left, or are they gravitating to the center? Actually, the results of this year’s primary and general elections show there is movement in both directions, setting the party up for future conflicts.
Let’s look at the congressional results. Perry Bacon, Jr. at FiveThirtyEight makes the case that the Democrats are moving left by comparing their House membership in 2010, the last time they controlled the chamber, to their incoming membership. Eight years ago, the Progressive Caucus had 80 members, while the Blue Dog Coalition, the most conservative Democrats, had 54. But in 2019, according to Bacon, the Progressive Caucus will rise to 96, while the Blue Dogs will number only 24. By that measure, the House Democrats have moved sharply to the left.
The picture looks different, however, if we compare the Progressive Caucus with the centrist New Democrat Coalition in the House and focus specifically on the new members who won districts previously held by Republicans. Democrats flipped 42 seats while losing two, for a net pickup of 40 (with one further addition possible in North Carolina).
So far, by my count, 24 of the new members who flipped seats have joined the New Democrats, while only 11 have joined the Progressive Caucus (including four who joined both groups). Altogether, with 89 members, the New Democrats will be only slightly smaller than the Progressive Caucus.
Competing forces are at work. The Democrats who flipped seats did so mostly in suburban districts where they attracted votes from independents and Republican moderates in what was an exceptionally strong year for Democrats. Many of the successful candidates were recruited to run precisely because they would appeal to moderates. That more of them joined the New Democrats than the Progressive Caucus should not be surprising.
At the same time, in urban districts that have previously been Democratic, generational turnover and ethnic succession are leading to a shift toward the left. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes’s upset of Joe Crowley in New York City is the paradigmatic case.
But the huge publicity given Ocasio-Cortes has obscured what are really two distinct developments: While progressives have gained ground in long-held Democratic areas, more centrist candidates have won the more competitive districts. This second development will limit how far to the left the party can go. The more the party expands into the suburbs, the more dependent it will be on those relatively centrist votes—and that dependence will become a constraint on the policies that Democrats are able to agree on.
Now let’s turn to the states, where Democrats picked up seven governorships in 2018: Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer), Illinois (J.B. Pritzker), Wisconsin (Tony Evers), Maine (Janet Mills), Kansas (Laura Kelly), Nevada (Steve Sisolak), and New Mexico (Michelle Luhan Grisham). Several of these new Democratic governors (notably Whitmer, Mills, and Sisolak) defeated candidates to their left in the primaries; all of them seem to me best described as center-left rather than progressive (in the left sense of that term).
To these new Democratic governors, we can add the two elected in 2017: Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Ralph Northam of Virginia, both of whom defeated primary opponents to their left before winning the general election.
The big gubernatorial wins for progressives in Democratic primaries in 2018 came in Florida (Andrew Gillum), Georgia (Stacey Abrams), Maryland (Ben Jealous), and Ohio (Richard Cordray). Although all four were ultimately defeated, Gillum and Abrams probably were stronger candidates—certainly they were more inspiring—than their more centrist primary opponents, and if not for Republican voter suppression in Georgia and Florida, they might have gone on to win.
But here’s the bottom line. Where Democrats made gains in the House and governorships, nearly all of the candidates were center-left rather than progressive. Somehow this striking pattern has been lost in all the talk about the party moving left.
Despite the growing strength of progressives in the party’s old strongholds, several forces are pulling Democrats to the center. The first is obvious. As the Republicans have moved to the far right, they have opened up ground in the center and created opportunities for Democratic gains. What Donald Trump has done nationally to alienate moderates, far-right Republican governors in Kansas, Maine, and elsewhere have done in their states.
Second, the Republicans’ shift to the right has led to an infusion of financial contributions to Democrats from centrist or even center-right donors. Michael Bloomberg, who gave Democratic candidates $100 million in 2018, is only the best known. Writing at The Intercept, Lee Fang points to a series of major Republican donors switching to Democrats this year and notes correctly, “Though national media attention has focused largely on newly elected democratic socialists and progressive members, the House Democratic caucus has also swelled with pro-business moderates.”
A third factor contributing to centrist gains is the widespread sense of high danger to the country posed by Trump and the Republicans today. Democratic primary voters are so concerned to pick candidates who can win that they may be treating candidates’ policies as secondary to their electability. Where Democrats hold relatively safe seats, Democratic primary voters may feel free to vote their ideological preferences, but they may think about those choices differently in competitive districts and states.
In other words, the same voter might vote for a centrist in a competitive district and a progressive in a safe district. The first vote might help secure a Democratic majority, while the second might push that majority toward more progressive policies.
These considerations, it seems to me, could become important in next year’s Democratic primaries. Democratic voters may be less concerned about which candidate’s views most closely match their own than about which one can defeat Trump (assuming Trump runs again). So they may value a candidate’s ability to attract moderates even if their own views are progressive.
That kind of calculation may help explain a striking result in a Gallup poll conducted November 13-18 that asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents whether “you would rather see the Democratic Party become more liberal or become more moderate.” While 41 percent said “more liberal,” 54 percent said “more moderate,” despite a recent tendency that Gallup notes for more Democrats to self-identify as liberal.
If the Republican nomination is a foregone conclusion, moreover, the Democratic primaries may attract a lot of independent or center-right voters who might otherwise have voted in the Republican primaries. This is especially likely in states that don’t require primary voters to have registered in advance as members of a party. Many observers assume that each party’s primaries attract disproportionate numbers of “extreme” partisans, but that may not be so for the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020.
For the moment, the ideological divisions between centrist and progressive Democrats are relatively subdued because Democrats are united against Trump and the Republicans. But if they regain power nationally in 2020, the party’s internal divisions will become more salient, and the results of the congressional races will become more important. The Senate will likely be an even greater constraint than the House. If it isn’t clear now, it will become clear then that while the congressional Democrats are more liberal than they were at the start of the Obama presidency, the centrists will set limits on what the party can do.