For more than a year, there has been a load of hand-wringing about how the political divisions among Democrats and the all-too-public fighting over them is going to cost them at the polling booth. What we can charitably call concern has been expressed over everything from whether the party is moving too far to the left, to whether it needs to de-emphasize identity politics.
Then, of course, there is the never-ending battle (at least on Twitter) between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who appear to be living out some electoral version of Groundhog Day. Former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile’s scathing tell-all memoir, which charged that the 2016 Democratic primaries had been stacked in Clinton’s favor, reignited this never-ending battle. “I do wish she had waited a week,” Democratic operative Matt Bennett told the Financial Times.
Then came Tuesday’s all but wave of Democratic election victories. As it turns out, arguing over the future of the party didn’t hurt it a bit. So what did the voters know that the supposed experts did not, and what, if anything, does that bode for 2018?
First, it’s likely this is all so much insider baseball. Many of the people arguing about this stuff on a daily basis are Washington insiders and others steeped in the minutia of party politics. (It’s quite possible some are Russian bots.) None of this describes the vast majority of voters. I’d love to take a poll and find out how many people know who Donna Brazile is, the name of her book and what she said in it. Despite the media saturation (I am literally listening to an interview with her on the radio as I type this sentence), I bet it’s a lot less than the readers of this blog think.
What’s more, the number of people whose voting behavior might be influenced by this infighting is likely infinitesimal. The typical voter gives less priority to the party’s long-term agenda, and more to protecting what he or she has in the present, and making at least some progress for the future. Here’s one telling data point from Virginia: It turns out that the most important issue for a plurality of voters was health care. More than three-quarters of those people voted for Ralph Northam, who campaigned for a Medicaid expansion in the state but explicitly said he didn’t support Sanders’s “Medicare for All” proposal. If that deterred any would-be Democratic supporters, they appear to be few in number indeed.
And just because there is a battle within the party, that doesn’t mean it’s going to drive people out of the party entirely. As Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College, recently pointed out: “The opposition is not fragmented.” Yes, Corrales noted, “There are huge divisions within the opposition to Mr. Trump,” but “because of the country’s winner-takes-all electoral system, there are minimal incentives for opposition parties in the United States to split.”
In fact, numerous pollsters noted that voters opposed to President Trump were highly energized. So it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to discover that Democrats were angrier at Trump than at one another, and prioritized accordingly. Who would have thought it?
Some observers have also suggested the differences between Democratic voters have always been exaggerated. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank, recently concluded in a report that while Sanders and Clinton supporters disagree on trade policy, there aren’t a lot of differences on other major policy positions. “To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions,” he wrote.
To be sure, the divisions are also grounded in legitimate grievances among Sanders supporters. There’s little doubt that the party coalesced around Clinton’s campaign early on. The combination of her fundraising prowess, and the desire to not jeopardize the election of the woman many thought would be the first female president, led many otherwise qualified politicians to decide not to make a run. As a result, for the vast majority of the primary campaign, it was Clinton (backed by the Democratic establishment) and Sanders slugging it out. This caused very real bad feelings among Sanders voters, who felt their concerns about the party’s treatment of their candidate were dismissed as unimportant by the party pooh-bahs. That’s never good.
But the party united yesterday and now appears galvanized for 2018. So the next time someone tries to claim all the infighting on the Democratic side is bad, remember this: It means people are engaged. It means they care — enough to argue, and enough to put aside their differences and and turn up and vote for the team.