Moderate Voters Could Decide the Democratic Nominee. What Do They Want?

Many of the existential questions gripping the Democratic Party center on one mysterious figure: the “moderate” voter.

by Giovanni Russonello, NY Times

Do Democratic voters want a transformational, visionary candidate for president, or someone who vows to restore stability?

Is it most important to marshal the Democratic base, or to win over swing voters?

Is there really enough support for a “Medicare for all” type of health care system?

These are the kinds of existential questions gripping a Democratic Party with no clear front-runner, as it lurches toward the first contests in the 2020 primary season. And many of those questions center on one mysterious figure: the “moderate” voter.

“While the progressives have been the focus of a lot of the debates, the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of moderates out there within the party that are struggling, trying to figure out who they’re going to vote for,” Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said in an interview. “It’s clear to me that none of the folks in the race so far have been able to seal the deal with those voters.”

The Democratic Party has trended strongly to the left in the past two decades: At the start of the millennium, Democrats were most likely to call themselves moderates, but now more than half identify as liberal, according to Gallup polling. But a stronger ideological consolidation has happened on the Republican side: Roughly three-quarters of Republican voters now call themselves conservative.

As a result, moderates still lean Democratic just as heavily as they did 20 years ago, and they will play a central role in defining the direction of the party. They have shifted to the left on some issues, but remain center-left on others.

It has been over 40 years since a Democrat won the presidency without earning more than 55 percent of the moderate vote, according to exit polls. Mrs. Clinton won only a slim majority of moderates in 2016, at 52 percent.

That year, Donald J. Trump became the first presidential candidate in the history of modern exit polling to win with only 40 percent support from moderate voters. But it was an unorthodox case: Both major-party candidates were disliked by a majority of voters, and 8 percent of moderates who voted in the general election didn’t vote for either of them, according to exit polls.

Today, Mr. Trump is still seen about as unfavorably by most Americans as he was in 2016, so Democrats hope that putting forth a more popular candidate will help them secure a wider majority of moderate voters, paving their path to the White House. Indeed, moderates deeply disapprove of the job Mr. Trump is doing as president: 58 percent of all moderates expressed disapproval of him in an NPR/Marist poll last month, while just 35 percent approved.

“Once we get into the general, it’s going to be incumbent on Democrats to pick up the moderate voters necessary to defeat Trump,” Mr. Manley said.

As the Democratic Party has moved to the left, moderate voters have followed the trend on issues like gun control, climate change and wealth inequality. But on other questions, such as military spending and abortion rights, they tend to hold decidedly less progressive views than their liberal counterparts.

This is particularly true when it comes to health care: By more than 20 points, they are less likely than liberal Democrats to say they would prefer a government-run health care system, a result that’s consistent across various polls. That helps explain why center-leaning candidates such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have refused to endorse a Medicare for all plan, which they fear could endanger their chances in the general election — and may not be necessary to capturing the Democratic nomination.

Still, pinning down voters can be hard at the fluid center of the ideological spectrum. “Some people are genuinely moderate, in the sense that on most issues they hold moderate positions,” William Mayer, a political scientist at Northwestern University who has studied swing voters, said in an interview. “There are some people who are moderates because they have relatively strong feelings about a lot of issues, but those issues kind of cancel out.”

What, then, would moderate voters actually like the next president to accomplish? By wide margins, Democratic primary voters tend to tell pollsters that they would prefer a candidate who will take a new and different approach from former President Barack Obama. But moderate and conservative Democrats are more evenly split, with much greater numbers saying they’d like to return to the way things were four years ago.

This is driven in part by black moderates’ allegiance to Mr. Obama’s legacy, pointing to a possible source of durability for Mr. Biden’s support among the crucial, African-American portion of his base.

And it also points to the changing demographics of the moderate vote itself. As the white Democratic electorate has grown more liberal and more highly educated, the party’s moderate bloc has become increasingly diverse. For the first time ever, moderate and conservative Democrats are now roughly as likely to be nonwhite as they are to be white.

Even among younger voters, people of color are less likely to call themselves very liberal than their white counterparts.

Black voters are expected to make up a quarter of all Democratic primary voters next year, a higher share than ever before — and in the 2016 Democratic primaries, half of black voters identified as moderate or conservative. About two-fifths of Latino voters did.

Latino voters have grown more solidly Democratic in recent decades, and they are expanding as a voting bloc: The number of new Latino voters registering rose threefold between 2014 and 2018, according to an analysis by Voto Latino, a media and advocacy group for Latino voters. Pew has predicted that Hispanics will make up the largest nonwhite group of voters in 2020.

Meanwhile, white voters without college degrees — who are the most likely white voters to call themselves moderate — are increasingly defecting to Mr. Trump’s Republican Party. If trends continue, they may make up less than a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate next year.

There are other potential misconceptions about moderate voters to dispel. Just because they are less ideological does not mean moderates are less engaged: In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, three in five moderate and conservative Democratic voters said they were paying close attention to the campaign — slightly higher than the share of liberal Democrats.

And while many young people do identify as liberals, it is in fact voters under 50 who are most likely to say they are moderate.

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