Moderate versus liberal a difficult choice for US Democrats
As former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg last week took steps toward a run for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate — potentially scrambling the existing field — his move fed into a debate over whether a moderate or more left-wing Democratic candidate is best able to defeat current President Donald Trump in next year’s election.
Unlike in many countries, the US president is not chosen through a direct vote by the public. Rather, the Electoral College system allocates a number of electoral votes to each state. The allocation of these votes reflects population to a degree, but also gives relative weight in favor of less-populated states. The winner-takes-all electoral system used in nearly all states means that whichever candidate wins a majority receives all of that state’s Electoral College votes. For example, in 2020, if Trump wins a majority of the vote in Pennsylvania, he will receive all of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
This system means that it is possible for a presidential candidate to lose the overall national vote and still win the presidency. Indeed, in the last 20 years, this has twice happened to the benefit of the Republican candidate — in 2000 and in 2016.
This is critically important to the 2020 election. Today, multiple national polls show Trump losing to all the leading Democratic candidates by a significant margin in national polls, suggesting he will likely again lose the popular vote. However, several polls show he remains very competitive in the key battleground states that often determine the election, thus maintaining his Electoral College advantage. For example, a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of six key states showed Trump in competitive races in all six against any of the leading Democrats.
The juxtaposition of the Electoral College against the national popular vote is a key point feeding into a debate among Democrats regarding whether a moderate or a more liberal candidate is most likely to defeat Trump in 2020. Democrats who want a left-wing candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren often argue that their candidates can win the White House. One typical argument is that Democrats do not have to win over any Trump voters; they argue that a candidate can win with ambitious ideas that excite Democrats to turn out to vote in large numbers — especially young people and racial minorities, who lean Democratic but typically have lower turnout rates. Alternatively, some argue that Sanders or Warren can win over white working-class voters in battleground states, who tended to vote for Trump, through their message of economic populism.
Left-wing liberals often assert that, in the age of Trump, Democrats need to fight hard and pursue bold agendas rather than aim for the middle ground. As Warren’s website argues, “Electability requires boldness.”
Warren and Sanders’ supporters often cite national polls in which Trump fares badly as evidence for their electability, but this ignores the all-important Electoral College. Still, the recent New York Times/Siena poll showed a close contest between Trump and Sanders in several battleground states; although moderate Joe Biden did better than Sanders in those contests, it suggests that Sanders might have a chance to defeat Trump.
Democrats who argue that a moderate candidate is more likely to defeat Trump tend to rely more on data and precedent and less on an instinctive preference for bold change. The New York Times/Siena poll shows Biden performing better against Trump in key battleground states than Sanders or Warren.
Proponents of a moderate candidate point out that, while left-wing figures such as Warren and Sanders, as well as some high-profile members of Congress, get a lot of media attention, the Democratic base is not nearly as left-wing as many liberal activists. Rahm Emanuel, a senior Democratic politician, has noted that “half of self-identified Democrats describe themselves as ‘moderate’ or ‘conservative’.” Some of the states that strongly matter in the Electoral College are not bastions of liberal thinking; they are likely less receptive to left-wing ideas than heavily Democratic states that will play little role in deciding the election.
Left-wing liberals often assert that Democrats need to fight hard and pursue bold agendas rather than aim for the middle ground.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Furthermore, when Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives in 2018, they did so thanks to moderate candidates, who took seats from Republican competitors. While the same elections raised the profile of several left-wing politicians, those politicians come from heavily Democratic areas and did not play a role in flipping seats from Republican to Democrat.
Moderate Democratic strategists also point out that the nature of Republican and Democratic coalitions are different. Given his Electoral College advantage, Trump has the potential to win by motivating a relatively homogenous base, while Democrats must stitch together a broader coalition.
A problem for moderate Democrats is the lack of a compelling moderate candidate. Biden leads among moderates but has a lot of political baggage. The next closest moderate candidate, Pete Buttigieg, is inexperienced by Democratic Party standards. There is a clear risk that a left-wing liberal candidate will appeal to enough Democrats to win the primaries, but then lose against Trump in key Electoral College states.
However, the election is a year away. Even in a more traditional US political environment, much can change in a year. Many of the norms and rules have changed during Trump’s presidency, further complicating any election predictions. The election is likely to be close — one way or another.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch