Have the Democrats become a left party?

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The current situation of the Democratic Party presents an apparent paradox. On the one hand, the ideological composition of the party has shifted to the left. In the quarter of a century since Bill Clinton’s first term in office, the share of moderates in the party went from a plurality of 48% to just 35% while the Liberals’ share doubled from 25% to 51%. 2020 was the first time that the Liberals constituted an absolute majority of the party.

Figure 1

On the flip side, moderates contributed more votes to Joe Biden’s victory than liberals, as Democratic presidential candidates have for decades.

The difference between these two measures is easily explained. Despite an increase of 6 percentage points since the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, self-identified liberals still constitute the smallest part of the electorate, as they have for four decades, as the following table shows. .

Table 1: Composition of the electorate in presidential election years

1980 1984 1988 1992 1996 2000 2004 2008 2012 2016 2020 Medium
Liberal 18% 17% 18% 21% 19% 22% 21% 22% 25% 26% 24% 21%
Moderate 51% 44% 45% 48% 48% 49% 45% 44% 41% 39% 38% 45%
Conservative 31% 35% 33% 31% 34% 30% 34% 34% 35% 35% 38% 34%
Source: exit survey

While most liberals are Democrats, many moderates are either Republicans or independents. (In 2020, nearly half of Independents described themselves as moderate, compared with just 20% who consider themselves liberal.) Biden did a little better among Liberals and Democrats in 2020 than Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he did a lot better than she did. done among moderates and independents. He increased Democrats’ share in the moderate vote from 52 to 64 percent, increasing their margin by 12 percentage points to 30 points. And he increased the Democrats’ share of independents from 42 to 54 percent, turning a 4-point loss in 2016 into a 13-point advantage in 2020.

Thus, at the national level, a winning Democratic coalition relies on legions of voters who are neither Democrats nor Liberals. Successful Democratic presidential candidates must win strong majorities, not narrow majorities, of moderate voters, and they must at least stay close among independents. Table 2 shows the electoral coalitions of recent Democratic presidents. Note that all of them rely on votes from moderates.[1]

Table 2: The ideological coalitions of democratic presidencies

Moderate Liberals Importance of moderates
Jimmy Carter (1976) 51.9% 21.6% + 31.3%
Bill Clinton (1992) 54.7% 33.2% + 21.5%
Bill Clinton (1996) 54.6% 31.4% + 23.2%
Barack Obama (2008) 49.8% 36.9% + 12.9%
Barack Obama (2012) 45.1% 42.2% + 2.9%
Joe Biden (2020) 47.6% 42.0% + 5.6%
Source: exit survey

Democratic primary voters seem to recognize this reality. The last time Democrats nominated the most left-wing candidate was in 1972, and the general election results did not encourage them to repeat that experiment. Despite the party’s constant shift to the left over the past quarter century, Democrats have been forced to consider electoral reality when selecting their presidential candidate.

You would think Democrats’ incentives would be very different in subnational jurisdictions where they enjoy strong majorities. But as the recent New York mayor’s primary shows, that’s not necessarily the case.

Despite the fact that Rudy Giuliani ruled New York City for two terms as mayor, followed by Mike Bloomberg for three terms, many observers persist in seeing New York as the most liberal big city in America, to the exception perhaps from San Francisco. They were surprised to find that in the recent mayoral race the winner and solid runner-up were not the most left-wing candidates. The winner, Eric Adams, introduced himself as a centrist of law and order and establishment politician; the second, Kathryn Garcia, drew on her experience in municipal administration. Voters on the left rallied around Maya Wiley, who won the support of MK Alexandria Ocasio-Ortiz. Wiley came in third and Andrew Yang, another moderate candidate who allied with Garcia in the closing weeks of the campaign, was fourth.

Whether one looks at the results of the first round or the dynamics of the preferential voting process used by the city, the big picture remains the same. If political views were based on evidence, the New York results would make it a bit harder for Fox News and their viewers to argue that Democrats are a party of socialists who want to let crime run wild, give your money and teach. to your children that all white people are racist.

Let’s take a closer look the results of this revealing primary competition.

In the first ballot, centrist candidate Eric Adams racked up a substantial first-round lead over second-place Maya Wiley, heir to the Sanders / AOC wing of the Democratic Party. Wiley was only a few points behind third, another centrist, Kathryn Garcia. As the ground was winnowed in subsequent laps, Garcia passed Wiley for 2sd place, leaving a contest between two relatively moderate candidates, Garcia and Adams, in the final round.

Table 3: Democratic primary results for the mayor of New York

First round Ranked choice
Eric Adams 30.7% 50.4%
Catherine garcia 19.6% 49.6%
Maya wiley 21.4%
Source: The New York Times

Since this was the first mayoral race conducted using a ranked choice vote, no exit poll was conducted. Researchers therefore had to revert to an old way of understanding election results by making inferences based on geography.

the results in the five boroughs of New York tell an interesting story. While Adams did not fare well in the upscale Manhattan neighborhood, he won the poorer African American sections of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. And he did it in specifically repudiating calls for “funding the police,” stating at one point that this was a conversation driven by “many wealthy white youth.”

It turns out that most minority communities want both more policing and better policing, and Adams hit that sweet spot with particular credibility as a former reformist police officer. Like Biden before him, Adams seems to have understood that the ideas buzzing on the militant left don’t always work for voters most likely to be affected by rising crime rates.[2]

Even in New York, it turns out Democrats need to balance the views of predominantly white progressives with those of working-class voters, many of whom are racial and ethnic minorities, who focus on the conditions they live in. every day in their communities and bring concrete results. before ideological rectitude. As Democrats look to 2022 and 2024, when social and cultural issues will be hotly contested, this lesson should not be forgotten.


[1] In contrast, since Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming re-election in 1984, the Conservatives have formed a solid and steadily growing majority of both the Republican Party and its electoral coalition winning in the presidential elections. And because conservatives outnumber liberals in the electorate, national Republican candidates are much less dependent on moderates than their Democratic counterparts.

[2] Granted, Progressives won other races in New York City, and a left-wing candidate won an upset victory in the Democratic primary for mayor of Buffalo. But in the most prominent contest that mattered the most, the moderates predominated.


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