There are fewer and fewer things that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon these days. Increasingly, however, both are coming to the conclusion that Democrats are going to nominate the most left-leaning, liberal candidate for president, giving Trump his best (maybe only) opportunity to win in 2020.
It’s easy to see why this theory has become conventional wisdom. No one raises money online (or get Instagram followers), better than liberal icons like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Democratic presidential hopefuls are embracing Medicare for all proposals that, not even a few years ago, would have been considered political suicide by most in the party.
Recent polling has shown a decided shift to the left over the last few years by Democratic voters. A Gallup poll out last month found that for the first time, 50 percent of Democrats defined themselves as liberal — a 20 point jump since 2001. On issues like race, economic inequality and immigration, Pew Research has tracked a decided leftward lurch by Democrats over the last ten years.
But, there’s plenty of evidence that this view of the 2020 Democratic nomination is too simplistic. There are plenty of cross-currents that run through the Democratic primary electorate. Who best navigates those choppy waters is the one who wins the nomination.
First, let’s look at health care. The conventional wisdom today is that "Medicare for all" has become a litmus test issue for the Democrats in the way that "repeal and replace Obamacare" was/is for the GOP. The latest CNN poll finds that 87 percent of Democrats approve of the idea of a national health plan even if it requires higher taxes.
But, the Kaiser Family Foundation (which, quite frankly is the best in class for health care polling), found a more complicated narrative. While large majorities of Democrats favor a Medicare for all program, they don’t think it should be THE top priority for Congress. “When Democrats were asked whether their party’s new House majority should focus on improving and protecting the ACA or passing a Medicare for all plan," write the KFF poll authors, "half (51%) say the ACA and nearly four in 10 (38%) choose Medicare-for-all.” Furthermore, when asked if they thought that House Democrats "owe it to their voters" to push a national health care plan or instead focus on bipartisan legislation that could get passed in Congress, Democrats were evenly divided 49 percent national health care plan to 44 percent bi-partisan legislation. Among Democratic-leaning independents, a majority, 53 percent, picked bipartisan legislation while just 39 percent picked national health care.
In other words, even Democratic voters don’t think that pushing for a new, national health plan is as important as fixing the one we’ve already got. That was also the lesson that Democrats should have taken from the 2018 election. While many Democrats included support of "Medicare for all" in their ads, the election wasn’t a referendum on national health care. It was a referendum on Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — specifically, it’s most popular provision — guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions. As such, it’s understandable that a whole lot of voters, including those who identify as Democrats, would like to see Democrats follow through on that priority before they try to pass an entirely new program.
On taxes, Republicans have eagerly portrayed proposals by Elizabeth Warren and AOC to tax wealthy individuals as proof of Democrats’ slide to socialism. A CNN poll found that just 41 percent approved of AOC’s proposal for a 70 percent tax rate on income over $10 million. The Warren plan — a tax on net worth over $50 million — got 54 percent support. (The names of Warren and AOC were not included in the questions asked by CNN pollsters). Among Democrats, however, the AOC plan is not universally popular. Just 62 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Trump disapprovers like the idea of the tax hike. More important, white college-educated voters — an important segment of the Democratic coalition — disapprove of this plan by 14 points (40 to 54 percent).
There’s also conflicting evidence about the political ideology and priorities of Democratic-identified Americans.
A 2017 Pew Survey found more Democratic voters identify as liberal (48%) than as moderate (36%) or conservative (15%). While a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, highlighted by CNN’s Harry Enten, showed Democrats evenly divided between moderate (39 percent) and liberal (38 percent). Another 17 percent called themselves conservative.
And, while 50 percent of Democrats identify themselves as liberal in a recent Gallup poll, another Gallup survey found that a majority of Democrats (54 percent) want to see the party become more moderate, while just 41 percent prefer the party becomes more liberal. Meanwhile, a solid majority of Republicans (57 percent) want to see the GOP to be more conservative, while just 37 percent want the party to moderate. Understanding this contrast in priorities - Democrats want their party to tack more to the center while Republicans want to see their party become more conservative - is critical in understanding why Republicans are convinced that the Democratic party will ultimately nominate a very liberal candidate in 2020. Republicans have felt the rightward pull of their base and assume that Democrats will succumb to similar forces in their own party.
This tension between identifying as liberal and prioritizing moderation, however, is not as odd as it would seem on its face. In fact, it suggests something that we’ve been seeing for a while now: the emphasis Democrats are putting on finding the most electable, rather than the most ideologically pure, 2020 nominee.
Nancy Pelosi’s "Just Win, Baby" mantra (otherwise known as "I don’t care what Democratic candidates have to say about me to win, let’s worry about that when we are in the majority"), continues into 2019. At this point, at least, Democratic voters are more concerned with winning than they are holding their eventual nominee to certain ideological standards or litmus tests. A Monmouth poll found that "56 percent of potential Democratic voters nationally said they preferred someone who would be a stronger candidate against Trump, even if they don't agree with that candidate on all issues. Meanwhile, 33 percent said they would prefer someone who aligns better with their beliefs, but who might have a harder time beating Trump."
In a December poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers by the Des Moines Register, 54 percent said that "they care more about nominating a candidate with a strong chance of defeating Donald Trump than about picking the candidate who best aligns with their political views."
I also think that the candidate Democrats determine is the "most electable," may or may not be the most moderate candidate. Instead, the Democratic candidate with the fewest number of obvious political flaws and liabilities for Trump to exploit will have the advantage in capturing the nomination.
For example, Biden has a 'moderate' pedigree, but he also has a history of verbal flubs, gaffes and poor political judgment. In an opinion piece last fall in "The Week," correspondent Damon Linker argued against a Biden candidacy, saying Biden "would become a one-man gaffe machine that the Trump campaign would delight in exploiting."
Elizabeth Warren’s biggest liability today isn’t that she’d lose to Trump because she’s too liberal. Instead, her continuing struggles and fumbles over her claims of Native American ancestry may be the red flag that ultimately disqualifies her in the minds of primary voters. If you look vulnerable to a Trump attack (and she’s already been one of his favorite targets), your stock in the primary will go down.
A number of other Democratic strategists I’ve spoken with also downplayed the influence of ideology in determining the ultimate nominee. "Everybody tends to think the fault line is ideological," one wrote in an email. "But historically, the big divide has between establishment versus anti-establishment (Clinton vs Sanders, Clinton vs. Obama, Gore vs. Bradley, Clinton vs. Jerry Brown, Mondale vs Hart). [Side note: I’d add Kerry vs. Dean in 2004]. Maybe the field winnows down along these fault lines. In the past, with the exception of 2008, the establishment candidate always wins." This year, however, there is no obvious 'establishment' candidate. Biden comes closest, but you can also argue that anyone over the age of 65, anyone who has spent the bulk of their political career in Washington, anyone who currently takes (or has ever taken) corporate/special interest money, can be labeled with the dreaded "E" word.
The president’s State of the Union address was less a blueprint for the year ahead in congressional-executive relations than it was a roadmap for 2020. The message: I am all that is standing between a strong, capitalist economy and Democratic attempts to turn the U.S.A. into another Venezuela. Privately, lots of Democratic insiders also fear that the only thing standing between Democratic victory in 2020 and another Trump term is a nominee who scratches the itch of the liberal base but can’t appeal to the moderate middle. Thus far, however, the evidence and data suggest that the most ideologically left candidate may not be the most likely nominee.
Image: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call