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Are Democrats risking a Rust Belt loss in 2020 by going too far left?

It’s possible, but these states don’t appear uniquely wary of aggressive action on climate change or single-payer health care.

Former vice president Joe Biden campaigns on March 6, 2018, with Conor Lamb, a Democrat who won a special election in a conservative-leaning western Pennsylvania congressional district. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press) (Gene J. Puskar)

There is a growing disagreement about Democrats’ 2020 strategy. Most of the current candidates in the race have moved to the left on major issues. Whether it’s the Green New Deal, single-payer health care or even reparations for the descendants of slaves, these hopefuls are adopting positions once deemed too extreme by their party.

Now we’re seeing some pushback. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper got into the race Monday by contrasting himself with the “dreamers in Washington.” Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said the more Democrats are “talking about the Green New Deal, talking about ‘Medicare-for-all,’ talking about socialism, the more that plays into the Trump campaign’s hands.” Recently, the governors of three states decisive to President Trump’s 2016 victory — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — urged a more incremental, practical approach.

Those three states seem key to the Democrats’ 2020 prospects. And there’s a sense among the party’s pragmatists that this leftward shift plays particularly poorly in these states. The New York Times this week focused on the consternation in Pennsylvania, for example, over some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal positions.

But is there really any reason to believe that? Is there something unique about the Midwest and/or the Rust Belt that is particularly averse to these ideas? Or is this just, as the party’s leftward leaders would argue, unnecessary timidity?

This is a highly complex question, but it’s worth looking at the data.

The first thing we can say is that these states don’t have extraordinary amounts of voters who self-identify as “moderate,” relative to other swing states. According to Pew Research Center data, Wisconsin is tied for the 10th-most moderates (36 percent of all voters), Pennsylvania has the 18th-most (34 percent) and Michigan has the 24th-most (33 percent). If we want to throw in a similar state that was close in 2016 but stayed blue, Minnesota is tied for the 29th-most (32 percent).

But self-identification isn’t always a reliable indicator, given that these labels mean different things to different people. So let’s break this out by individual policy.

Not all of these ideas have been polled in each state, but some of them have. And for others, we can get a rougher gauge by looking at support in the Midwest versus in other regions.

The Green New Deal is too new an idea for there to be exhaustive polling, but the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in 2017 offered state-by-state breakdowns on broader climate change matters. It found that all four of these states were within one percentage point of the national average on the idea of setting carbon dioxide emissions caps on coal power plants. They were also all within one point of the national average when it came to the idea of requiring utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

These measures are, of course, only two ideas that are similar to ones in the massive Green New Deal, and they don’t address how that plan’s much-bolder and more costly ideas might be perceived. But they suggest that these states are on par with other swing states when it comes to recognizing the urgency of dealing with climate change.

On the single-payer issue, Pew data from 2014 and 2018 showed that, as a region, the Midwest was less in favor of the idea (also known as government-run health care or Medicare-for-all) than any other region. The 2018 data showed that 54 percent of Midwesterners felt it was the government’s responsibility to provide health care, versus 66 percent in the Northeast, 64 percent in the West, and 58 percent in the South. The idea that the Midwest would be even less keen on this than the ruby-red South would seem instructive.

But a state-by-state look adds more nuance. The Data for Progress think tank crunched numbers from the Kaiser Family Foundation on this question last year. And while the think tank leans left and advocates for single-payer, what we’re interested in here is not the gross level of support but relative support levels between states.

Here again, these states are on par with the national average and, in the case of Michigan and Pennsylvania, are actually even more supportive than that.

The same think tank analyzed Civis Analytics data on a federal jobs guarantee, and again these states don’t appear more reluctant than your average swing state.

Data for Progress also looked at Pew data on the minimum wage, though, and found that these states were slightly less keen on a $15-per-hour minimum wage than other states with similar partisan leans.

Reparations also appear to be an issue that plays particularly poorly in the Midwest. A 2014 YouGov poll showed that just 13 percent of Midwesterners favored paying the descendants of slaves, the lowest support of any region (albeit within the margin of error). And a 2016 Marist College poll, likewise, showed that the Midwest supported this idea less (22 percent) than other regions (26 percent in the South and Northeast, and 30 percent in the West). State-by-state data isn’t available on this question.

Anecdotally, it’s understandable why Democrats are concerned about this. They have relied on these states as their firewall in the past, and Trump breached that wall, rather unexpectedly. They have also had success with moderate, pragmatic politicians even in rural areas in these states. Democrats have won multiple special elections in tough, conservative-leaning districts in western Pennsylvania in recent years, for example. The House member in the most GOP-leaning district, meanwhile, is Democrat Collin C. Peterson (Minn.). Many of the reddest districts held by congressional Democrats are in this region.

To Rendell’s point, it’s also possible that the details of these policies will wind up mattering less than that they allow Trump and his allies to peg these Democrat with the “socialist” label — which is a key GOP talking point already. And maybe the Democratic Party’s leftward shift could simply hurt it across the board.

But it’s worth questioning the stereotype of the more-moderate Midwesterner — or the conservative Democrat who hails from the vast swath of land between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. On most of these ideas, these key states appear to be about where you’d expect any competitive state to be — and even supportive of many of them.