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

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

Jonathan Cohn

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 smorgasbord 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. 

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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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