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Democrats: Go Directly to the Center
Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200
All the political signals are screaming: Democrats must move to the center, both to mitigate their losses in 2022 and to keep alive their hopes of retaining the Presidency in 2024 and building political power thereafter. Let’s review some of the background.
Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40’s, only a little above where Trump’s was at the same point in his Presidential term which of course was the precursor to the GOP’s drubbing in the 2018 election. Biden has been doing especially poorly among working class and Hispanic voters.
Biden’s approval ratings on specific issues tend to be lower, in the high 30’s on the economy and in the low 30’s on hot button issues like immigration and crime. Voters say they prefer the Republicans over the Democrats by wide margins on economic issues including inflation, crime and securing the border. Off year and special elections since 2020 have indicated a strongly pro-Republican electoral environment and Democrats currently trail Republicans in the generic Congressional ballot for 2022. It now seems likely that Democrats will, at minimum, lose control of the House this November and quite possibly suffer a wave election up and down the ballot.
In short it’s damage minimization time…and time to rebrand for future advances. The logical course of action is to move to the center on cultural issues, where more and more voters see the Democrats as abandoning common sense, and emphasize issues that are really, really popular. The latest NBC news poll provides a useful template for this:
The top four candidate attributes that would make a voter more likely, as opposed to less likely, to vote for a Congressional candidate are fully funding the police (more likely minus less likely = +64), expanding oil and natural gas production to lower energy prices (+52), supporting the bipartisan infrastructure legislation (+50) and supporting Biden’s plan to lower health care and prescription drug costs (+46). These are all even more popular among voters who to do not plan to vote in party primaries but will vote in the general election. And they are all, perhaps contrary to expectations, solidly to overwhelmingly supported by Democratic voters overall.
What’s not to like? Well for those on the progressive left who currently bedevil the Democratic party, plenty. They don’t like fully funding the police and they sure don’t like an “all of the above” approach to energy problems. And they famously held up the bipartisan infrastructure bill for months to pursue doomed negotiations for a massive Build Back Better bill. In the end they didn’t get the latter but tanked the impact the former could have had on voters.
Biden, to his credit, is currently trying to respond to market signals and move the party in the direction suggested by the findings above. But it’s a tough slog when the Democratic left is nipping at his heels every step of the way. And offering advice like this, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who has 13 million Twitter followers and 8.5 million Instagram followers:
We need to acknowledge that this isn’t just about middle of the road, an increasingly narrow band of independent voters. This is really about the collapse of support among young people, among the Democratic base, who are feeling that they worked overtime to get this president elected and aren’t necessarily being seen.
This all-too-typical disparagement of the political center is precisely the wrong direction for the Democrats to go in. This especially comes into focus when you consider where the big stakes are in the 2022 election—not in AOC’s +25 Democratic-leaning House district and among her progressive activist followers but rather in competitive House districts and swing Senate states, where voters are far, far more moderate. Indeed, just the kind of voters who would respond well to the approach suggested by the NBC poll findings.
Embedded in the disparagement of appealing to the electoral center is a quasi-religious faith in the power of base mobilization to solve all political problems. This faith tends to attribute Biden’s win in 2020 to this mobilization, especially his victories in the relatively diverse states of Georgia and Arizona, newcomers to the Democratic coalition.
But this is wrong too. Despite the acres of commentary that echo this interpretation, the hard facts of the matter are that Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance not by improving Democratic performance among the classic locus of the Democratic base—nonwhite voters—but by improving Democratic performance among white voters, both college and working class. In fact, Democrats actually lost ground among nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics (Catalist data).
This pattern very definitely applies to Arizona and Georgia, not only critical for Biden in 2020, but also the sites of two 2022 Senate races which Democrats cannot afford to lose if they hope to retain control of at least that part of Congress. An easy way to see this is to look at contributions to Democratic margin (CDM) for different demographic groups. CDM is calculated by multiplying an election’s proportion of voters in a given demographic by their Democratic margin in that election. The result can be compared across elections to see how demographic groups change in their contribution to the overall Democratic margin—and therefore, in these cases, which groups enabled Biden to tip these states to the Democrats.
Start with Arizona. (Here I use unpublished data from the States of Change project, since Catalist has not released data for these states.) Arizona did not escape the nationwide pattern of Hispanic voters moving toward Trump. As a result, despite the underlying trend toward more eligible Latino voters and excellent turnout performance, the overall CDM of Arizona Hispanic voters actually went down by a little over a point in 2020, reflecting a sharp drop on Hispanic working class support. On the other hand, the CDM of white voters, driven both by college-educated and working class voters, improved by around 5 points—more than enough to account for the shift in Arizona to a Democratic advantage in 2020. In other words, it was white voters, not Hispanics, who won Arizona for Biden.
In Georgia, the most important part of the nonwhite vote, black voters, had lower Democratic margins as well as slightly reduced voter share due to declining relative turnout (that is, their turnout went up less than other groups). As a result, the CDM of black voters in 2020 actually declined by a point and a half in the state, driven, as with Hispanics in Arizona, by working class voters. Also as in Arizona, the Democratic shift from a deficit in 2016 to an advantage in 2020 can be accounted for entirely by a sharp shift toward the Democrats among white voters, both college and noncollege. This shift was the major factor behind Democrats carrying the state.
So, replicating Biden’s success in these two states in 2022 (and presuming no gifts from Donald Trump, such as urging his supporters not to vote, as in the Georgia runoffs) appears to depend on way more than base mobilization. Moderate white voters who were won over to the Democratic side in 2020, perhaps especially due to distaste for Trump, need to be kept in the fold in 2022. And further bleeding among nonwhite voters, especially working class voters, needs to be prevented.
It does not seem plausible that the road to achieving these goals, even partially, can be found by pressing the progressive accelerator. Rather, a move to common sense cultural positions and advocacy of very popular policy ideas, as above, seem more likely to do the trick. And importantly, lay the groundwork for a Democratic rebranding that is a necessary condition for future Democratic success.