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If Democrats Listened to Their Voters, They'd Be Moving Left

The Democratic base overwhelmingly supports progressive positions. It's time for the party to pay attention.

BySean McElweeandColin McAuliffe

Photo of a 2017 protest sign by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Political parties are perpetually wrestling with a fundamental dilemma: tack toward the proverbial “middle” and seek common ground with their opponents, or shift aggressively to the political pole and feed the base? This debate has long animated the American left, never more obviously than during the 2016 presidential primary, when the two sides were personified in Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Two years later, individual Democratic candidates all over the country are wrestling with that question, and their decisions will dramatically shape the rhetorical and policy choices of progressives moving forward into 2018 and 2020—when hopefully the Trump era will come to an end. The question is, what will replace it?

Our new Data for Progress report, commissioned by the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, uses data to make the case that it the Democratic Party does not need to move toward the mythical center of plutocratic and white-resentment politics. At the heart of our analysis is a novel crossing of public opinion research with an analysis of actual roll call voting. The result is stark: On issues from racial justice to economic equality, Democratic primary voters are increasingly united around progressive policies, and those who represent them (or aspire to), would do well to act and vote accordingly.

To begin, we analyzed the preferences of Democratic base, finding increasing support of progressive politics rather than centrism. One metric: The share of white Democrats who believe that racial inequality is caused by a “lack of willpower” among black people has declined dramatically and more white Democrats accept that racial inequality is due to discrimination, according to the General Social Survey. In 2008, 48 percent of white Democrats said “lack of willpower” explained racial inequality, and 37 percent said “discrimination.” Less than a decade later, in 2016, 34 percent said willpower and 48 percent discrimination.

All charts courtesy of authors

Or to take another measure of progressivism, even though many Democratic politicians recently voted to gut regulations on big banks, the Democratic base supports more aggressive regulation on banks, as well as additional action to take on inequality. According to the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, 92 percent of Democratic primary voters support more government regulation of banks, 80 percent say the government should reduce inequality, and 86 percent say the government should guarantee healthcare.

The days when Democrats like Jim Webb could call affirmative action “state-sponsored racism” (as he did in 2000) are long gone. Even since the 2008 election, Democrats have moved to the left on racial justice and economic inequality. That means that a “pivot to the center” carries far bigger risks than it did just a few years ago, and could easily alienate Democratic voters.

Our think tank Data for Progress used data from the Pew Research Center and Kaiser Family Foundation to model state-level support for Medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage. We also analyzed support for the Hyde Amendment (which bans federal funding for abortion) and regulating CO2 and ending mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes modeled by political scientist Christopher Skovron using Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) data. These policies have all been the subject of intra-Democratic Party debates, with progressives demanding the party stand up for their values and party elites claiming that doing so would risk electoral backlash.

For both the minimum wage and Medicare for all, we were able to compare our estimates to actual Senate legislation. The chart below shows that both policies have support in a wide range of states. Seventy-six percent of Democratic senators represent states where modeled support for a $15 minimum wage is greater than 55 percent. But only 61 percent of those senators support a $15 minimum wage. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats in the Senate represent states where modeled support for Medicare for all is greater than 55 percent, but only 33 percent of Senate Democrats support Medicare for all. Despite the fact that 86 percent of Democratic senators represent states with 55 percent support for repealing the Hyde Amendment, we couldn’t find any Senate legislation that has been introduced to repeal Hyde. And despite the fact that every Democratic senator represents a state where support for regulating CO2 is 55 percent or greater, only five senators currently support transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Finally, though every Democratic senator represents a state where support for ending mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes is 55 percent or greater, the only legislation on the issue is a bipartisan bill that only slightly curbs mandatory minimums.

We find similar patterns in the House: 92 percent of Democrats in the House represent districts where modeled support for repealing the Hyde Amendment is greater than 55 percent, but only 70 percent of House Democrats support repealing the Hyde Amendment. That is, while Republicans have elected radical right-wing politicians in deep red states (or even purple states like Florida and Nevada), many solidly blue states are represented by Democrats who are centrist.

One reason that Democrats feel they have very little space to move low is that persistently low voter turnout in the US means that the voting population is to the right of the general public. That means the path forward for Democrats needs to include mobilizing marginal voters, individuals who drift in and out of the electorate. These voters are overwhelmingly more supportive of progressive policies than individuals who consistently vote. According to Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) 2016 data, individuals who voted for Barack Obama but stayed home in 2016 preferred Democratic candidates in the House 83 percent to 14 percent (the rest preferred a third-party candidate). Ninety-one percent of those nonvoters support increasing the minimum wage to $12, 72 percent believe white people have advantages, 76 percent support a renewable fuel mandate, and 82 percent support an assault weapons ban.

Maybe Democrats will win the House in 2018, and even the Senate and presidency in 2020, without shifting to the left. However, public opinion suggests there is plenty of space for the party to move in a more progressive direction. If Democrats don’t go to where the base is sooner or later, the Democratic Party won’t find a new constituency—the constituency will find some new politicians.

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Colin McAuliffe is a co-founder of Data for Progress. Follow him on Twitter.

Sean McElwee is a researcher, writer, and a co-founder of Data for Progress. Follow him on Twitter.

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