Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in the Governance Studies program and the author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”
To hear the Republican Party and some members of the press tell it, the Democratic Party has been taken over by its left wing. But that conclusion is less foregone than the headlines suggest. The Democratic Party today remains, as it has been for some time now, a center-left party and if it is to win future elections it will have to stay there.
The recent leftward tilt is not without some justification. The heavy press coverage of a young, media-savvy congresswoman, the rush by presidential candidates to court the Bernie Sanders voters and the desire to have a riveting story of a left-wing coup to bookend the right-wing takeover of the GOP all contribute to a narrative that the GOP is only too happy to promote.
One of the more stable findings in U.S. politics is that about one-fifth to one-quarter of the electorate in presidential years call themselves liberals. There has been some modest change in those numbers: In 1984, 17 percent of voters called themselves liberals; the number rose to 21 percent in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president; and then it rose to 22 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. The number of self-identified liberals crept up to 25 percent in 2012 and to 26 percent in 2016.
Conservatives, by contrast, are more numerous: They have averaged about 33 percent of the electorate the past three decades and clocked in at 35 percent in 2012 and 2016. But the largest segment of voters in presidential elections don’t call themselves liberals or conservatives; they call themselves moderates. In 2016, moderates constituted 52 percent of Democratic voters; historically when Democratic presidential candidates win, they have done so by winning closer to 60 percent of moderate voters. Obama won 60 percent of moderates in 2008 and 56 percent of the moderates in 2012. Because Democrats start every presidential campaign with a smaller base than Republicans, they are consequently more dependent on moderate voters than are Republicans. Democrats can’t win without moderates.
Which is why all the attention to the supposed leftward tilt of the Democratic Party is causing mild panic among the many people who sympathize with the Green New Deal but care most about getting rid of President Trump. In the 2018 midterm elections, moderates outnumbered liberals in the electorate by 10 percentage points and gave 62 percent of their votes to the Democrats. New research from Gallup, put together by my Brookings Institution colleague Bill Galston, sheds light on the current internal makeup of the Democratic vote in the 2018 midterms.
Galston looks at ideology among self-identified Democrats over a six-year period — 2013 to 2018 — and compares it with self-identified Democrats about 20 years ago, at the start of the century. The big movement to the left occurred primarily among white Democrats: In recent years, 54 percent of white Democrats identify as liberals — that’s up from 34 percent of white Democrats from 2001 to 2006. For blacks and Hispanics, however, the story is very different. A large share of black Democrats and Hispanic Democrats (40 percent and 36 percent, respectively) identify as moderates. And while self-identified conservatives make up the smallest part of Democratic voters, 24 percent of black Democrats and 23 percent of Hispanic Democrats identify as conservatives, compared with only 12 percent of white Democrats. These findings are especially significant given that black voters are a large and powerful segment of the Democratic vote — especially in primaries, which have lower turnout than general elections.
A second word of caution about the party’s supposed leftward tilt comes from a study of candidates in the 2018 primaries that I co-authored with Alex Podkul. We saw an outpouring of enthusiasm on the left that resulted in a substantial upsurge in candidates running in Democratic primaries as progressives. But they tended not to win. Establishment Democrats won 35 percent of their primaries, while progressives won 26.6 percent of their primaries.
What is also important not to forget is that many of the new members of the House Democratic Caucus come from districts that used to be held by Republicans. On some issues, these new members may feel that they need to break with liberals and progressives in order to keep their districts. Conscious of their bigger tent, Democrats would be wise to dump the word “socialist” from their rhetoric. Recent polling by NBC-Wall Street Journal shows that only 9 percent of independents and 13 percent of moderates view the term favorably.
All of which is to say that the balance of power both in the party and in the House Democratic Caucus rests not with progressives but with moderates. As the Republican Party moves closer and closer to Trump, many of its voters are moving away. But to think that a formerly Republican-leaning woman living in a suburb is going to move, in one election cycle, all the way across the political divide to the far left of the Democratic Party is to fool oneself into defeat.
At this moment in time, and for the near future, the Democrats need to manage a big tent. This may change if Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) becomes speaker or president. But if progressives overestimate their appeal in the nation as a whole, she will never get there.