The 7% Matter

Dan Cohen March 25, 2020

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This piece is in response to Mic­ah Uet­richt’s arti­cle, The Swing Vot­er Chimera.”

Mic­ah and I agree on many points about how pro­gres­sives can best win gen­er­al elec­tions and about the fail­ure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 cam­paign. But it is a trap to look at the fail­ure of a mod­er­ate cam­paign, such as Clinton’s, and con­clude that pro­gres­sives should sim­ply do the oppo­site. To plot a suc­cess­ful course for a pro­gres­sive can­di­date like Bernie Sanders, we must move beyond ide­o­log­i­cal frame­works and address the more nuanced rea­sons for vot­er behavior.

Mic­ah and I both reject the sim­plis­tic and con­ve­nient mod­er­ate swing-vot­er argu­ment.” Any­one fol­low­ing the major news net­works has heard this argu­ment ad nau­se­um — that elec­tions are decid­ed by mod­er­ate swing vot­ers, so win­ning can­di­dates should posi­tion them­selves in the ide­o­log­i­cal mid­dle. The rea­son­ing is not with­out some mer­it, because there are cer­tain­ly mod­er­ate swing vot­ers we want to attract. But pro­gres­sives, espe­cial­ly those who want to win elec­tions in the con­text of greater move­ments, should reject this log­ic not sim­ply because Clin­ton used this strat­e­gy and lost, but because it would under­mine our abil­i­ty to build sup­port for a more pro­gres­sive agenda.

While many pro­gres­sives have cor­rect­ly reject­ed the mod­er­ate swing-vot­er argu­ment, they have unfor­tu­nate­ly replaced it with anoth­er sim­plis­tic idea, the pro­gres­sive argu­ment.” It goes like this: In order to gen­er­ate the turnout we need to win, we ought to run only on a bold left agen­da with bold left rhetoric (to inspire infre­quent, or non­tra­di­tion­al” Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, to come to the polls). Both argu­ments fail for the same rea­son: They view vot­ers pure­ly in ide­o­log­i­cal terms. 

In fact, plen­ty of evi­dence indi­cates that win­ning over either group — infre­quent vot­ers and mod­er­ate swing vot­ers — requires going beyond the ide­o­log­i­cal. FiveThir­tyEight esti­mates that about 7% of vot­ers cast their bal­lot for one major par­ty in 2012 and the oth­er major par­ty in 2016. Three­quar­ters of these so-called mod­er­ate swing vot­ers went for Trump. If they had bro­ken for the more ide­o­log­i­cal­ly mod­er­ate Clin­ton, she would like­ly have won. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, infre­quent vot­ers did not show up for her. Low­er turnout in 2016, espe­cial­ly among African Amer­i­can vot­ers, may equal­ly have cost her the election.

But these sup­pos­ed­ly con­flict­ing goals — win­ning more mod­er­ate swing vot­ers and mobi­liz­ing infre­quent vot­ers — were both accom­plished by Barack Oba­ma. And there­in lies the key flaw in the log­ic of the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed vot­ing argu­ments: If ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tions actu­al­ly dic­tat­ed out­comes, one would not expect mod­er­ate swing vot­ers to choose the same can­di­date who inspired infre­quent vot­ers to show up. In fact, the vot­ing results for these two groups tend to move up and down togeth­er — because nei­ther group votes, broad­ly speak­ing, based on ideology. 

That means a hyper-ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paign is not like­ly to win over either group. That’s okay. Win­ning elec­tions, just as build­ing strong move­ments, requires per­suad­ing peo­ple who do not believe all the same things we do and, cru­cial­ly, who are not nec­es­sar­i­ly moti­vat­ed by our same moti­va­tions. We should nev­er retreat from our val­ues, but the right­eous­ness of our work must still be mea­sured by our abil­i­ty to effec­tive­ly engage and win crit­i­cal fights. There is no virtue in los­ing a winnable fight on account of a rigid adher­ence to some ortho­doxy or unre­lat­able polit­i­cal framework. 

So what non­ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors can com­pel both infre­quent and swing vot­ers? Past races show they can be moved by trust­wor­thi­ness, trans­paren­cy, inde­pen­dence, anti-estab­lish­ment cred­i­bil­i­ty or even civil­i­ty and uni­ty (val­ues odd­ly maligned by pro­gres­sives). Pro­gres­sives can absolute­ly embrace these val­ues as part of our agen­da, which would open more doors to mobi­lize infre­quent vot­ers while gain­ing trust in the mid­dle, no mat­ter the size of that mid­dle. Indeed, research by soci­ol­o­gists Robb Willer and Jan Voelkel shows that the most effec­tive way to pro­mote pro­gres­sive poli­cies is in terms of broad­ly held val­ues, such as fam­i­ly or the Amer­i­can Dream” — the net result being a broad­en­ing of sup­port among mod­er­ates and no loss among lib­er­als. When these val­ues are neglect­ed or reject­ed, we cede them to mod­er­ates who typ­i­cal­ly use them to mask regres­sive agendas. 

The good news for pro­gres­sives is that these non­ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors are per­fect­ly com­pat­i­ble with pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics — so there is no need to adopt a cen­trist posi­tion that would be anath­e­ma to pro­gres­sive goals (and, frankly, ridicu­lous for a can­di­date like Sanders to cred­i­bly adopt). Instead, can­di­dates who under­stand these real­i­ties care­ful­ly frame pro­gres­sive agen­das in ways that expand their reach. 

Sanders mas­ter­ful­ly end­ed the South Car­oli­na debate by answer­ing the ques­tion of what peo­ple mis­un­der­stand about him — point­ing out that noth­ing he is say­ing is rad­i­cal.” His plat­form has not changed, but to those vot­ers who might be turned off by talk of polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion,” he sends reas­sur­ance. If Sanders builds on that foun­da­tion in the com­ing months, he will be able to grow far more sup­port among less ide­o­log­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed vot­ers, all with­out aban­don­ing a sin­gle posi­tion. Sanders does not lose his bold pro­gres­sive cred­i­bil­i­ty because he hap­pens to be trust­wor­thy, or Inde­pen­dent, or any­thing else. 

Pro­gres­sive move­ments and cam­paigns do not suc­ceed by con­vinc­ing every­one to be rad­i­cal; they suc­ceed, as Sanders under­stands, when those ideas are no longer con­sid­ered rad­i­cal. Mic­ah is cor­rect that pro­gres­sives can (and must) win vot­ers beyond our base — but we also must under­stand that their beliefs and moti­va­tions are not always ours, and that’s not a prob­lem as long as we find ways to talk about our agen­da, the way they find compelling.

Views expressed are the author’s. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

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