Nothing in moderation

Democrats need to move farther to the left to regain power.

Nothing in moderation

Democrats need to move farther to the left to regain power.

Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).


The pundits have spoken, and they know what voters want: moderation. Since the election, pundits have watched the right run off the rails while worrying that the Democratic Party might embrace moderately more liberal positions. In Alabama, pundits assured Americans that Sen.-elect Doug Jones couldn’t win because of his support for abortion choice. Pundits have lambasted progressives for being too far to the left on immigration (The Atlantic), trans rights (The New York Times), abortion (Free Beacon) and climate change (Axios). On issues like abortion and immigration, Democrats have been warned that listening to the progressive base could spell doom. Writing in the Times, former Clinton advisor Mark Penn and former New York City Council President Andrew Stein warned of a party “mired in political correctness” and “offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.”

Instead, we’re told, it’s time to pivot to the center. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who famously recruited centrist Democrats to run for office in 2006 and urged the party to achieve “record deportations” under Clinton, told Politico in May, “The future, in a presidential election, a statewide election, or a congressional, is in the suburbs, where more moderate voters exist.” The party seems to buy this myth. “Democrats See Conservative Blue Dogs as Key to Winning House,” blared one Bloomberg headline from July, noting that the “party’s House campaign arm is now building close ties with the previously ignored Blue Dog Coalition.”


Polling data suggests that even on “hot-button” issues, like immigration, Democrats have the upper hand. In a the special election in Alabama earlier this month, voters overwhelmingly preferred Democrat Doug Jones to Republican (and alleged pedophile) Roy Moore on the issue of gay rights and, despite incessant warnings that abortion would drag him down, Jones pulled out a surprise upset by a comfortable margin.

Americans are increasingly accepting of reproductive rights, and opposition to them comes almost exclusively from white Evangelicals (a group Democrats gain little from courting). While Democrats have long cowered from discussing taxes, Americans are more and more supportive of hiking taxes to pay for services. In tracking public support for government, Pew finds that it has swung toward bigger government in the past year, with 48 percent in favor of more government with bigger services — the highest in a decade — and 45 percent preferring small government. (This is particularly surprising since Americans tend to prefer “big” government when talking about specific programs and small government when talking in generalities.) Pew also found that 50 percent of Americans support more spending on health care and 18 percent support cuts to health care. Similarly, 46 percent support increased spending on Social Security, with 6 percent supporting cuts, 58 percent support increasing spending on infrastructure with seven percent supporting cuts, and 67 percent support hikes for education spending, with 9 percent supporting cuts.

Americans are increasingly accepting of progressive positions.

Many who argue that Democrats need to move to the center say that they need to do so in order to take over districts that are currently held by Republicans. To test the idea that Democrats need to embrace the center to win over such districts, I reached out to political scientist Chris Skovron, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University who studies the way that political elites misperceive public opinions. Skovron used a modeling technique called Multilevel Regression and Poststratification to predict congressional district-level support for various policies. Rather than using national surveys, we can examine whether Democrats are right to move to the center in districts they are actually trying to win, and which pundits perceive to be moderate. Using this technique, Skovron modelled support for key issues and we calculated average support for a policy in the 91 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) target districts.

These districts range from Florida’s 27th (currently held by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring) which was won by Clinton by 20 points, to West Virginia’s 3rd, which Clinton lost by 50 points and where Democrats have fielded a scrappy outsider to run for the seat. To ensure that more liberal districts didn’t bias our results, we also examined preferences specifically in the last 11 districts Democrats targeted, which are far more Trump-friendly than the other districts.

Our results suggest that the punditry has erred greatly in encouraging moderation. We averaged support for each policy across the districts, to measure the average across the districts. In the average DCCC target district, fifty-nine percent of the public support allowing a woman choose whether she wants to have an abortion and 57 percent support a path to citizenship. More than half of individuals in the average district either strongly or somewhat agree that white people have advantages because of their skin and 73 percent support a higher minimum wage. Less than half of the public in the average district believe that the government should prohibit spending on abortion (the so-called Hyde Amendment).

In addition, these districts are favorable towards climate policy, with 64 percent support for a renewable energy mandate and 68 percent support for the Environmental Protection Agency regulating carbon in the average district. Far from running away from gun control, Democrats can safely support an assault weapons ban, which has support among 61 percent of individuals in thes average district. Democrats can abandon “tough on crime” rhetoric, because 63 percent support for ending mandatory minimums. Even examining only the most contentious districts, a progressive Democrat would be on the right side of all ten issues modeled.

What we discovered here is along the lines of what Skovron has found in past research. In a study from March, Skovron and David Broockman found that Democratic state legislators regularly underestimate how liberal their constituents are (as do Republicans, who believe their constituents are far more conservative than they are in reality). Democrats simply aren’t confident that the voters support them on policy positions that we typically consider liberal, especially in areas like gun control and abortion, despite extensive data suggesting voters agree with Democratic positions on these issues.

Democratic state legislators regularly underestimate how liberal their constituents are.

In another paper, Skovron and Broockman surveyed county party chairs and found that, while Democratic Party chairs favored moderate candidates, conservatives did not perceive this trade-off. Democrats believe that they can’t run liberal candidates and win; Republicans think they can run even the most radical conservative and still win. Forthcoming research from political scientists Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes finds similarly. They summarized their findings for The Outline: “Comparing a survey of senior Congressional aides with public opinion polling, we found that staffers from both parties often had a more conservative picture of their constituents' opinions than the constituents actually expressed in polls.” This suggests that the main limitation on the Democratic Party’s move to progressive policy is mostly internally, rather than externally, created. There’s little evidence to support that assumption that progressive candidates will lose races because they are too left-leaning.


Despite talk among the pundit class about the virtues of centrism, many of the candidates running in DCCC target districts aren’t campaigning with it in mind. I talked to Dan Canon, who is running for office in Indiana’s deep-red 9th district against Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, one of the few Republicans to under-perform Trump in the last election. Canon is a civil-rights lawyer who brought the landmark same-sex marriage case to the Supreme Court in 2014 and sued Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for denying gay couples marriage licenses in 2015. This year, he brought a case against Trump for inciting violence against protesters. Canon has been talking about over-the-horizon ideas like universal basic income, but his central focus is universal health care and the opioid crisis, which he proposes alleviating partially with medical marijuana. Canon is also a high-school dropout who taught music for a living and is open about his past divorce.

“There are a lot of people who are middle-of-the-road but are suspicious of politicians generally, but Democrats have tried to court them with these sort of Republican lites, and we’ve never really had success with those sorts of candidates,” Canon told me. The right interpretation, he said, is that “people want real people to represent them, people who are committed to coming up with solutions here, rather than in D.C.”

When I asked him about what policies he was interested in, Canon brought up medical marijuana as an example of where the establishment has been lead astray. “There’s a Washingtonian idea of what’s going to play in Peoria, and that often is very different from what actually plays in Peoria,” he said. Canon is unabashedly pro-choice, and supports Medicare for All and a path to citizenship. These may not be considered “centrist” or “moderate” positions by the establishment, but they are supported by the voters Democrats want to win.

There’s a Washingtonian idea of what’s going to play in Peoria, and that often is very different from what actually plays in Peoria.
Dan Canon, who is running for Congress in Indiana’s 9th district

In Michigan’s 11th district, Fayrouz Saad is running to be the first Muslim woman in Congress. The 11th is a narrowly Republican district — Trump won there by five points — represented by retiring Republican Rep. David Trott. Saad doesn’t see embracing the center as a path to victory; she believes she can win over voters with progressive policy. “It’s progressive values that will bring the voters out to the polls,” she told me.

In Pennsylvania’s 16th, a district Trump won by seven points, Congressional candidate Jess King is optimistic about her chances in 2018 against incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker. “Here in Central Pennsylvania, a lot of voters are just tired of watching SuperPACs pour some millionaire's money into our district, ginning up fear with TV ads while politicians rewrite the rules in D.C to favor the very wealthiest,” she told me. “So when we make our campaign about building an America that is truly for all of us and tell folks we'll fight for debt-free college and Medicare-for-all, people's ears perk up.”

After decades of watching the middle class get hollowed out by corporate interests and the Republican Party use racial divisions to sew resentment, it’s clear that voters are ready for something else. Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to offer it. The good news is that there are candidates are throwing out the centrist playbook and charting their own course.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher in New York City.