A year after President Biden defeated several candidates to his left in the Democratic presidential primary, something similar happened in the mayor’s race in New York. Eric Adams, who made his opposition to the “defund the police” movement a centerpiece of his campaign, was declared the winner of the city’s Democratic primary, while another fairly centrist candidate, Kathryn Garcia, finished a close second. Maya Wiley, who supported cutting the New York Police Department’s budget and was endorsed by two of the United States’ most prominent progressives — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — finished third, just behind Garcia.

After these high-profile losses, it’s worth asking: Is the Democratic left a paper tiger? I don’t think so. The real story is more complicated than that:

Democratic voters don’t fall into clear ideological camps. In the 2020 presidential race, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) ran on similar platforms to Biden ― liberal but not as left as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Warren. In heavily White Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg and Klobuchar basically matched or did better than Biden among voters who identify as “somewhat liberal” or “moderate” (as opposed to “very liberal” voters, who favored Sanders). But moderate Black voters in South Carolina and other states that voted later overwhelmingly favored Biden.

Similarly in New York City, Adams overwhelmingly won in heavily Black areas, while candidates who were ideologically similar to him, such as 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Garcia, were well behind. The progressive Wiley, who like Adams is Black, was in second in many heavily Black areas, while finishing first in areas where lots of very liberal Democrats live. Like Buttigieg and Klobuchar in 2020, Garcia appears to have been the favorite of White Democrats who aren’t very liberal.

This suggests there are three distinct cohorts in the Democratic Party: an unabashedly progressive, younger bloc that is majority White and full of college graduates; a liberal-but-not-that-liberal older bloc that is also mostly White and has a lot of college graduates; and a Black bloc that is not very liberal but doesn’t necessarily support the same candidates as the second bloc. (There are, of course, Asian and Latino Democrats and others who don’t fit easily into these cohorts.) What appeals to that Black bloc may be a long-standing connection with Black voters (Adams, Biden) more than ideological moderation (Buttigieg, Garcia) or liberalism (Warren, Wiley). A big barrier to victory for Wiley was running against Adams, who is a longtime elected official with an established Black political base.

The left is winning some big races. It’s true that a candidate of the Democratic establishment/center-left is much more likely to win a race than a candidate of the left, according to an analysis done by FiveThirtyEight. That is in part because more centrist candidates usually get the most endorsements from other Democrats and support from big donors. Also, most Democratic voters identify as “liberal” or “moderate,” not “very liberal,” so being the most liberal person in a race is not an advantage. Finally, progressive candidates generally call for changes to the status quo, an inherent disadvantage against a candidate proposing a more incremental approach.

So we should generally expect left-wing candidates to lose. Nonetheless, over the past year, Democrats championed by the party’s left have prevailed over more centrist opponents in high-profile primaries, notably Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.), Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton and Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner.

Even in defeat, progressives are forcing the Democratic Party to shift to the left. In part because of the candidacies of Sanders and Warren, Biden ran on a platform that was much more progressive than former president Barack Obama did, and thus far, he has been a more progressive president than Obama was. Similarly, Adams, like the more progressive Wiley, ran on reforming the NYPD and stopping police brutality — he just says he won’t do it through cutting police funding. Even when it loses at the ballot box, the left is winning a lot of ground

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All that said, the left needs to get better at electoral politics. Polls suggest Democratic voters like Medicare-for-all but are wary of changes to their own health insurance plans, and that they like reallocating some police functions to other agencies but not “defunding the police.” So the left needs to improve at getting its framing of an issue into the political discourse. A divided New York left, too, didn’t coalesce around a candidate for months, embracing Wiley only a few weeks before the election after it was too late to blunt Adams’ momentum.

The progressive left faces some real structural disadvantages, so it probably needs to outperform the party’s center-left on electoral tactics — and that isn’t happening right now. Until more very liberal Democrats get better at politics, they will be stuck trying to push their ideas onto centrists like Biden and Adams who hold the power, a process that will have some successes but also many frustrations.

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