Democrats Can Still Seize the Center

And they don’t have to give up their principles to do it.

by Thomas B. Edsall

President Trump is unpopular, but that doesn’t mean defeating him is going to be easy. Democrats will have to tackle issues that may alienate — and even give offense to — progressives, women, Latinos and African-Americans.

Putting together a broad enough coalition to finish the job — to win 270 Electoral College votes — will require navigating fraught cultural arenas: race, immigration and women’s rights — while dodging the broadly loathed set of prohibitions that many voters, including many Democrats, file under the phrase “political correctness.”

In September, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Cook Report released a study of 2,402 adults designed to identify the swing electorate. They found that 16 percent of all voters “are truly persuadable.”

Who are they? “They’re younger, more moderate, and less engaged in national politics. At least a quarter say they didn’t vote in 2016 or 2018.” Their views of Trump are less extreme than those of more partisan voters, with the overwhelming majority saying they “somewhat” approve or disapprove of the president, rather than “strongly” approve or disapprove.

Last year, Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, “reviewed nearly every academic article containing the name ‘Donald Trump’,” and concluded that “attitudes about race, gender, and cultural change played outsized roles” in Trump’s victory. Trump’s adamant “aversion to political correctness,” Grossmann argued, was a crucial factor in the outcome in 2016:

Many people dislike group-based claims of structural disadvantage and the norms obligating their public recognition. Those voters saw Trump as their champion. The 2016 election produced greater candidate and voter division around the celebration of diversity and accepted explanations for group disparities.

John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist, tackles this issue head-on. He emailed in response to my query: “What should Democrats do?”

I would drop the elitist attitude that currently suffuses the Democratic Party which has morphed into an insufferable army of virtue-signaling know-it-all’s who spend all of their time looking down their noses at the unwashed masses in flyover country. It has less to do with specific issues and more to do with the unbridled arrogance that is currently deeply embedded in the DNA of the once great Democratic Party.

The reality, though, is that the Democratic Party is no longer the party Feehery grew up with in Chicago.

In a study published earlier this year, based on CNN polling of Democratic primary voters in 2008 and 2016, Ron Brownstein wrote:

The Democratic primary electorate is tilting more heavily toward minorities and well-educated whites, solidifying the dominance of women and experiencing reduced participation from blue-collar whites.

Ideologically, the study found that the

share of Democratic primary voters who identified as moderate or conservative dropped from just over half in 2008 to 2 in 5 in 2016. Voters who identified as very liberal increased from around 1 in 5 in 2008 to about 1 in 4 in 2016; the largest group, at 36 percent, was voters who identified as somewhat liberal. (That was also a big increase from around 3 in 10 in 2008.)

What this means in practical terms is that centrist Democrats face an ever higher hurdle in Democratic presidential primaries, while the pool of voters willing to back a liberal candidate is growing.

A respected Republican pollster (who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect his relationship with his clients) advises Democrats to be circumspect in this regard when it comes to the general election:

In our last national poll of registered voters, taken in the last week of August, the ideological distribution of the electorate is: Very liberal 13 percent; Somewhat liberal 18 percent; Moderate 28 percent; Somewhat conservative 22 percent; Very conservative 14 percent.

This shows, the pollster continued, that

three-fourths of the electorate is within shouting distance of the center, and only one-fourth is on the extremes. That tells you much of what you need to know about the “center” vs. “progressive” debate.

Trump, this pollster continued, “is very unlikely to gain more than the 46 percent of the popular vote that he received in 2016, because he has made no effort to do so.” That, in turn, places the burden on Democrats to “nominate someone who can consolidate the 54 percent majority of non-Trump voters.”

Democrats cannot bank on the theory “that non-Trump voters have ‘no place else to go,’ ” he said, because in 2016 they did just that” — went elsewhere:

About 8 million voters — greater than the population of 38 of our 50 states — voted for 3rd party candidates in 2016, almost 6 percent of the total vote. The same thing is likely to happen again in 2020 if the choice is Trump vs a real leftie, i.e. Sanders or Warren.

This pollster also tackled two key strategic questions: Should the party and candidate invest more in voter persuasion of the undecided, or in mobilization of loyal supporters, and should the party focus on white college-educated voters, or white non-college voters.

“The Democratic candidate should concentrate on persuasion, because Trump will take care of mobilizing his opponents,” he argued. The pollster pointed out that in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, “Northern Virginia turnout exploded by 500,000 votes, because people turned out to send a message of opposition to Trump” even though the Democratic candidate for governor, Ralph Northam, “was neither very liberal nor a very inspiring candidate.”

The pollster also argued that “the ‘college educated vs. working class’ debate is a false choice. The answer again is both.”

He said he has difficulty seeing “a very liberal Harvard professor winning back the blue collar whites who switched from Obama to Trump in 2016. But Democrats have many candidates who could.”

I asked Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant, why immigration, identity politics and political correctness remain problematic for Democrats. His view is that many Democratic positions on these issues reinforce

America’s loss of identity. We no longer seem to have a great, uniting idea of what America is. On these issues, Democrats support further disintegration of one united national culture, open to and supported by all Americans. Instead, Democrats support what I would call “cultural segregation,” the idea that nothing unites us, and what makes us different and special, our unique group identities, is all that exists.

One recurring, if mostly whispered, concern among some Democratic strategists is the viability of a female nominee for president. In a July 15 essay at the website 538, “Americans Say They Would Vote For A Woman, But ….” Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote that

Women do not pose the only challenge. Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant who worked for the 2004 Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, wrote in reply to my inquiry:

It’s baffling to me that Democrats could lose the 2016 election in the way that they did, and not treat their losses with white working class voters, as well as their failure to make progress with largely working-class Latino voters, as the five-alarm fire for the party that it is.

Democrats, according to Ruffini,

are at risk of losing that historic identification with the working and middle classes, with dire consequences in the Electoral College.

Let’s take a look at immigration specifically as another complicated issue for Democrats. Justin Gest, a professor of public policy at George Mason, in an email articulated a widely held view among Democratic strategists:

In survey after survey, Americans favor immigration and immigrants but they also want to have the sense that their government regulates entry and exit at their borders and the various processes for acquiring visas and citizenship.

This compromise-oriented approach is reflected in the accompanying chart, which is based onan Oct. 20 Public Religion Research Institute report showing that Americans support restrictive immigration policies 56 to 45 percent, but have a positive view of immigrants, at 89 to 11 percent.

Clearly, as Trump’s election demonstrated, some voters “want to severely truncate immigration and halt the diversification of the population,” Gest wrote, but “the vast majority just want the sense that the government is in control.”

But Democrats, Gest continued, are,

loath to use the word “control.” The most effective position champions the virtue, value, and integrity of American immigrants while reassuring voters that the only way to attract the best and the brightest is to build a well-regulated system.

A Republican Trump critic, who asked to remain anonymous in order to offer advice to the other party, cautioned Democrats against appearing to support open borders by decriminalizing border crossing.

Instead, he argued, support for “a generous immigration policy” granting a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers, is best “made from a position of strength: We have control of the border, so let’s be generous and merciful about how we exercise that control. If we appear to cede control, it’s a lot harder to sell generosity and mercy.”

Along similar lines, Kimberly Wehle, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and former counsel in Kenneth W. Starr’s Whitewater investigation, argued in an email that the most effective Democratic position on immigration would be:

“One that highlighted the horrors of our current compassionless policies, and started with enough money to strengthen border patrol and care for migrant children. Address head-on the fears of the American people around this topic.”

At the same time, Wehle, who describes herself as “a rule of law person, which means I don’t support this particular presidency,” contended that the policy stand most harmful to Democratic prospects is: “Free medical coverage and public services for undocumented migrants.”

In a broader critique of the current Democratic nomination contest, Gest of George Mason wrote:

“Under Donald Trump, Republicans have chosen to abandon the American center and its moderates. It would be utterly foolish for Democrats to make the same mistake and move the Democratic Party further leftward. With Trump on the ballot, any semblance of moderation will appeal to these valuable voters in swing states in the general election.”

The leftward pressure on Democrats seeking the presidential nomination is glaringly apparent in NBC/Wall Street Journal survey data comparing the views of primary voters with those of general election voters.

Asked in a survey to choose between a candidate “who proposes larger scale policies that cost more and might be harder to pass into law, but could bring major change on these issues” or “someone who proposes smaller scale policies that cost less and might be easier to pass into law, but will bring less change,” Democratic primary voters chose to advocate large scale policies 56 to 40, while voters who only cast ballots in general elections preferred the proponent of small scale policies 34 to 21.

An analysis of the NBC/Wall Street Journal data by Public Opinion Strategies, one of two firms that conduct the WSJ/NBC polls, found that there are several issues on which there are substantial differences between Democratic primary voters and general election only voters, as can be seen in the accompanying graphic: Medicare for All; offshore drilling; Obamacare and government health care to undocumented immigrants, for example.

The NBC/WSJ survey also examined “the level of support of the different issue positions held by primary voters for Biden, Warren and Sanders, and found that “there are four important issue differences where support among Biden voters” was significantly closer to the views of the general electorate than the views “among Warren and Sanders voters”: immediately canceling student loan debt; health care for undocumented immigrants; stopping fracking; and Medicare for All.

Jonathan V. Last is the editor of The Bulwark, a site that features many anti-Trump conservatives. Last argues that Trump “is the most unpopular president since the advent of modern polling” and that the percentage of voters favoring impeachment is “trending upward and it does not require much imagination to see how it could get to the high 50s.”

Candidates like Warren and Sanders, however, risk their credibility with their Medicare for All proposals, according to Last:

The idea that a Democratic president in 2021 is going to be able to create a public option AND kill private health insurance seems to be more or less the equivalent of Trump promising that he was going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. It’s so fanciful as a political and legislative matter that it’s not even worth taking seriously.

To a certain degree, all the advice flowing to the Democrats risks falling on deaf ears. The reality is that centrist Democrats — Biden included, despite his current poll position — face a pool of primary voters eager, even determined, to back a liberal candidate who stands well to the left of the general electorate.

Just ask Steve Bullock, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bennet.

And yet there are still 12 months to go.

Thomas B. Edsall has been teaching political journalism at Columbia University since 2006.

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