Democratic primary voters will shape the course – and the outcome – of the 2020 presidential election. Party strategists are, no doubt, already trying to formulate a plan for capturing the White House by presenting their eventual nominee as both a rational moderate who can win the independent vote and also radical enough to fire up the more extreme and, apparently, growing progressive/socialist base. Such a plan is simply unrealistic, which means the Democratic primaries will produce a candidate who is one or the other: somewhat moderate or radically progressive.
It is a tried-and-true practice for most politicians on both the right and the left to play to their bases in primary contests – touting themselves as either the most conservative or the most progressive prospect – then present a more centrist approach as they face off against the opposing party’s candidate.
The reasoning is obvious: The majority of voters backing either of the two main parties have always been closer to the center on most issues. Additionally, every candidate for office must consider the block of voters generally known as independents. These independents, more often than not, can decide an election because they are for the most part less ideologically committed. That is not to say they are more easily persuadable but that they are simply less partisan. A majority of independent voters could back either a Republican or a Democrat because they find a candidate’s platform more appealing or because they develop a negative view of the opposing side.
Shifting Trends of Political Opinion
It is easy to imagine that Americans are mostly divided – on every issue – between two diametrically opposed ideologies and that the gap between the two sides is growing wider. The reality is a little more complicated. Studies by the Pew Research Center make for a few interesting observations. Among Republican voters, there is more diversity of opinion on social issues than among Democrats. While Republican voters are actually more divided on certain social issues than they were in the 1990s, a majority of their Democratic counterparts have moved further left on those issues.
On the subject of immigration, for example, 84% of Democrats say immigrants strengthen the country compared to 32% who expressed that view in 1994. Meanwhile, 42% of Republican voters believe that immigrants strengthen the country, compared to 44% who say immigrants are a burden. In 1994, Republicans were less divided on the issue: 64% viewed immigrants as a burden while only 30% said immigrants strengthen the country. Similar trends can be found when looking at other issues.
One notable change in partisan opinion is quite telling and, perhaps, would not come as a surprise to many: In 1994, less than 20% of Republicans and Democrats had a negative view of the opposing party. Today, 44% of Democrats or those who lean Democrat have a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans, while 45% of Republicans and Republican-leaners have a very unfavorable view of Democrats.
The Media-Driven Drift to the Left
It is not difficult to attribute the changing attitudes, largely, to the influence of the press and the increasing partisan weaponization of social media. The political left has exerted an enormous amount of influence over national opinion, thanks to its overwhelming domination of the media and entertainment industries. So, it is easy to see why the Democrats have moved further left on social issues – and assigned those issues a higher priority – while the right has become more divided.
What does all this mean for the Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls, then? In the most simple terms, it means that each candidate is going to have make a choice. Either play to the media-driven trend of putting an emphasis on issues like race relations, healthcare, immigration, and income disparity to tack further to the left in those areas – as a majority of the party’s voters have done – or hold onto a somewhat more centrist position to appeal to independent voters.
Since most Democrats have moved further left, their candidates are going to find it increasingly difficult to take the middle road. They will have to choose one path or the other and do it early in the primary fight, which is now already underway.
There was a time when a Democrat running for office could afford to play to the party’s more moderate voters – thereby also appealing to many independents – and be secure in the knowledge that the more left-wing voters would support them anyway. With the 2020 field being as crowded as it is, however, and with a media-driven shift toward a more extreme, strident, and unforgiving leftist worldview, those candidates who choose, in the primaries, to project a more centrist image will lose the progressive vote to other more extreme candidates. By contrast, those candidates who pander to the leftward shift and focus on “social justice” issues will lose their party’s moderate voters.
The Stark Choice Facing Trump’s Challenger
Having moved far enough left to appease the progressive wing, a candidate who goes on to win the Democratic nomination will find it very difficult to move back toward the center. The question each Democrat will have to ask themselves is: Can they take the more progressive/socialist platform and win with little moderate and independent support, or should they cleave to the center in hopes of picking up independents and perhaps swaying some 2016 Trump voters, even if it costs them the extreme left?
…the Democratic primaries will set the tone for the presidential campaign.
Thus, the Democratic primaries will set the tone for the presidential campaign. If the ultimate winner succeeded by running to the left, they will have no choice but to take that platform into the general election. Some candidates are already making that choice. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is staking out a more pragmatic, less extreme platform, and Kamala Harris (D-CA) recently told a reporter “I am not a Democratic Socialist.”
It does appear that at least some of the Democratic contenders are at least paying lip-service to the belief that capitalism, as an economic model, is superior to socialism. Hard to believe that any politician in America, today, is even compelled to make that choice, given socialism’s historic track-record of failure.
“I believe that capitalism has great strengths when it works for all people equally well,” Harris said Tuesday, February 19 on the campaign trail. Another Democratic contender, former Maryland Congressman John Delany, went perhaps a step further: “This primary is going to be a choice between socialism and a more just form of capitalism,” he wrote in a campaign email. “I believe in capitalism, the free markets, and the private economy. I don’t believe socialism is the answer and I don’t believe it’s what the American people want.”
All well and good, but neither Klobuchar nor Harris have what one would term sterling free market credentials. Having both expressed support for the so-called “Green New Deal” and universal healthcare (Harris even suggested that she would eliminate private health insurance altogether), these two candidates – along with the rest of the pack – are going to find it difficult to assure general election voters that they are not socialists, first and foremost.
When the dust settles, the Democratic Party’s primary voters will choose either a true moderate or a radical progressive to run against President Donald Trump. There is not – and cannot be – a middle way. Perhaps the worst thing those voters could do – for their party’s fortunes – is to nominate someone who claims to stand by the free market and the Constitution and then campaigns on a completely socialist agenda. Today’s voters, and today’s president, will not let them get away with that.