Centrist Pundits Assume Voters Agree with Them. Polling Tells a Different Story.

Jonathan Chait and Rahm Emanuel get “electability” totally wrong.

Jonathan Cohn November 15, 2019

The Democratic establishment says centrists like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are more electable. The Democratic establishment is wrong. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The 2020 pri­ma­ry has, so far, been great for pro­gres­sives. The cam­paigns of both Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren have robust pol­i­cy shops, churn­ing out bold, com­pre­hen­sive plans on issues from edu­ca­tion to cli­mate change to health­care to immigration.

Given how broadly popular such progressive ideas are, one would think that they would be a part of any concept of a political “center." But they’re not.

And vot­ers are respond­ing. War­ren has seen her poll num­bers rise, and is cur­rent­ly first in Iowa polling aver­ages and tied for first in New Hamp­shire. And, after a brief dip fol­low­ing his heart attack, Sanders rebound­ed in the polls too, buoyed by the momen­tum of endorse­ments from Reps. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Rashi­da Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

But not every­one is hap­py about the pro­gres­sive ambi­tion on dis­play. And I’m not just talk­ing about the Wall Streeters who reg­u­lar­ly speak to the press about how much they don’t want a War­ren or Sanders presidency.

No, I’m talk­ing about those with­in the par­ty as well. Accord­ing to pun­dit Jonathan Chait, lead­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates are liv­ing in a fan­ta­sy world” about how pro­gres­sive the elec­torate is, set­ting them­selves up for defeat. For­mer Chica­go may­or Rahm Emanuel, launch­ing a new career as a left-bash­ing com­men­ta­tor, thinks Democ­rats will alien­ate the sub­urbs if they push pie-in-the-sky pol­i­cy ideas” or a smörgås­bord of new enti­tle­ments.” Even House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi has joined in on try­ing to tem­per the ambi­tion of the pres­i­den­tial field, argu­ing, What works in San Fran­cis­co does not nec­es­sar­i­ly work in Michigan.”

All three — along with count­less oth­er politi­cians and polit­i­cal observers — have been beat­ing the drum that a pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy agen­da is wild­ly out of step with the public.

Chait, for instance, laments that Democ­rats are aban­don­ing an Oba­ma-esque incre­men­tal­ism. But there isn’t much rea­son to believe that such incre­men­tal­ism is an elec­toral win­ner giv­en the shel­lack­ing Democ­rats faced amid cra­ter­ing turnout in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. A polit­i­cal pro­gram needs to build a con­stituen­cy to fight for it.

To be clear, not every vot­er will agree with you on every sin­gle issue. A can­di­date sim­ply needs to con­vince vot­ers that they are more trust­wor­thy and more like­ly to fight on the vot­ers’ behalf in the areas where they do agree.

For­tu­nate­ly for pro­gres­sives, the vot­ers do agree on a lot.

Tax­ing the rich. Data for Progress recent­ly polled the tax plans of Bernie Sanders, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Joe Biden and Don­ald Trump. Six­ty-five per­cent of vot­ers chose either Sanders or Warren’s plan as their favorite. Even 50% of Repub­li­cans did.

A Green New Deal. The idea of a Green New Deal has become the hall­mark of ambi­tious cli­mate plans in 2020, rec­og­niz­ing the need for mas­sive invest­ment in decar­boniz­ing infra­struc­ture and good-pay­ing green jobs. It’s a deal vot­ers approve of: accord­ing to the Cook Polit­i­cal Report, 67% of swing vot­ers say that a Green New Deal is a good idea.

Free Col­lege. Giv­en the crush­ing impact of stu­dent debt on a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents and recent grad­u­ates, can­di­dates like Sanders and War­ren have been talk­ing about elim­i­nat­ing tuition at pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. In a New York Times poll from this sum­mer, three-fifths of vot­ers, includ­ing 72% of inde­pen­dents, sup­port­ed the idea.

Medicare for All. The idea of mov­ing toward a health­care sys­tem that isn’t reliant on pri­vate, for-prof­it insur­ers espe­cial­ly riles up the naysay­ers. Polling on health­care reforms can vary a lot based on phras­ing, so the best data on pop­u­lar sup­port is one that tests mul­ti­ple fram­ings at once. When the Pro­gres­sive Change Insti­tute test­ed sup­port for Medicare for All, they found that as long as pro­gres­sives offer coun­ter­ar­gu­ments and don’t let Repub­li­can nar­ra­tives dom­i­nate, Medicare for All com­mands major­i­ty sup­port.

That’s why we’ve seen Democ­rats run on Medicare for All in pur­ple dis­tricts and win. Katie Porter and Mike Levin, both sup­port­ers of Medicare for All, suc­ceed­ed in the well-heeled sub­urbs of Orange Coun­ty. And Medicare for All sup­port­er Matt Cartwright, who rep­re­sents Oba­ma-Trump ter­ri­to­ry in north­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia (think Scran­ton), won re-elec­tion by almost dou­ble dig­its over a well-fund­ed Repub­li­can challenger.

Giv­en how broad­ly pop­u­lar such pro­gres­sive ideas are, one would think that they would be a part of any con­cept of a polit­i­cal cen­ter.” But they’re not.

That’s because the cen­ter” pun­dits talk about isn’t actu­al­ly the cen­ter of the elec­torate. It more often refers to the cen­ter of the elite class of major donors — uphold­ing a cor­po­rate-friend­ly sta­tus quo.

Cen­trist” Democ­rats in Con­gress are fight­ing to pro­tect phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal monop­o­lies, thus inflat­ing the cost of pre­scrip­tion drugs. By con­trast, three-quar­ters of vot­ers in key swing dis­tricts, accord­ing to a recent poll, want to see such monop­o­lies bro­ken up.

Cen­trist” Democ­rats have aid­ed and abet­ted Don­ald Trump’s immi­gra­tion poli­cies, but polls show that vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly oppose fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion and a bor­der wall.

Cen­trist” Democ­rats often flock to bills that roll back reg­u­la­tions on Wall Street, and yet crack­ing down on Wall Street is pop­u­lar across the polit­i­cal spec­trum.

Cen­trist” Democ­rats push to increase mil­i­tary spend­ing year after year, and yet only one-third of vot­ers actu­al­ly think that we are spend­ing too little.

The fact that pro­gres­sive poli­cies are pop­u­lar — and that poli­cies brand­ed cen­trist” often aren’t — doesn’t mean that pro­gres­sive can­di­dates can rest on their lau­rels and be assured of vic­to­ry. We’ve seen pro­gres­sive bal­lot mea­sures win in the same elec­tions that more pro­gres­sive can­di­dates didn’t.

What it does mean is that you can run on pro­gres­sive poli­cies and val­ues and win. And that you can change what we even mean by the cen­ter” in the process. 

Jonathan Cohn is a Boston-based activist and edi­tor who has vol­un­teered on numer­ous elec­toral and bal­lot ini­tia­tive cam­paigns. He chairs the Elec­tions Com­mit­tee at Pro­gres­sive Mass­a­chu­setts, a statewide grass­roots advo­ca­cy group, and was a cam­paign fel­low for Oba­ma for Amer­i­ca in 2012.
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