To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, I sometimes think the slogan of the Democratic party’s left is: “Extremism in the defense of progressivism is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of votes is no virtue”. Here are ten reasons why that approach is dead wrong and why Democrats need to fully and finally reject it if they hope to break the current electoral stalemate in their favor.
1. In the 2022 election, the reason why Democrats did relatively well was support from independents and Republican leaning or supporting crossover voters—not base voters mobilized by progressivism. These independents and crossover voters were motivated to support Democrats where they did because many Democrats in key races were perceived as being more moderate than their extremist Republican opponents. Moderation = Democratic votes.
2. In fact, as the Democratic party has moved to the left over the last four years, they have actually done worse among their base voters. They’ve lost a good chunk of their support among nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics, and among young voters. Since 2018, Democratic support is down 18 margin points among young (18-29 year old) voters, 20 points among nonwhites and 23 points among nonwhite working class (noncollege) voters. These voters are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative in orientation and they’re just not buying what the Democrats are selling. Moderation = Democratic votes.
3. Nor are Democrats making up for this loss of support with a surge in turnout generated by mobilizing their base groups in a great progressive anti-MAGA crusade. In fact, Latino and black turnout was rather poor in this election as it was among Democrats overall. It turns out that the progressive base mobilization strategy hss a fatal flaw for the Democrats: the concerns of many of “their” voters do not track with the issues that motivate progressives. These voters would be more likely to turn out for a Democratic party associated with safe streets, a healthy economy and a sensible, non-divisive approach to social issues. Moderation = Democratic votes.
4. Democrats lost the House popular vote overall by 3 points in this election. That’s bad enough but they also lost the statewide House vote in seven (7!) states with Democratic-held Senate seats up in 2024. That includes four Biden states (Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and three Trump states (Montana, Ohio and West Virginia). But the Biden states were all carried by under 3 points (.3, 2.4, 1.2 and .6, respectively) while the Trump states were all crushing Democratic losses (16, 8 and 39 points, respectively). It defies logic to think Democrats can compete successfully across these House Republican-supporting states in 2024, especially if Republicans run halfway sane candidates, without burnishing their common sense, distanced-from-the-national-party credentials. More progressivism ain’t gonna do it. Moderation = Democratic votes.
5. Democrats did relatively well in 2022 by taking down extreme Republican candidates. But the fact remains that the party itself is still regarded as extreme, particularly in its tolerance of extremist groups. 53 percent of voters thought so in 2022. Granted, an identical 53 percent thought the same thing about the Republican party. But imagine how well the Democrats could do if they were viewed as much less extreme than the Republicans. Moderation = Democratic votes.
6. Moderate candidates generally do better than more ideological candidates and this election was no exception. That was certainly true for the Republican party, where Trumpy candidates paid a steep price relative to their saner counterparts. But Democrats who succeeded also ran moderate campaigns and sought to dissociate themselves from the generic progressive brand.
As Warnock’s campaign manager neatly put it:
There could have been other campaign operatives or another campaign that could have said, ‘OK, Herschel Walker has all this baggage, so we’re just going to run to the left and just try to turn out as many of our voters and just let Republicans eat their own. We didn’t do that.
To this day, strenuously progressive groups like Justice Democrats have yet to flip a single seat from the Republicans, despite an abundance of effort. You’d think they’d get the message. Moderation = Democratic votes.
7. Remember Trump-Biden voters—voters who supported Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020? They and voters like them will loom large in 2024. According to polling this year by JL Partners, just 10 percent of Trump-Biden voters think we need to go farther on political correctness in society today, compared to 51 percent who think we’ve gone too far. The analogous numbers for teaching children about trans issues are 14 percent (go farther) and 36 percent (too far); for efforts to remove historical statues, 8 percent (go farther) and 62 percent (too far); for teaching children about critical race theory, 18 percent (go farther) and 34 percent (too far); for removal of people from jobs for past offensive comments, 12 percent (go farther) and 43 percent (too far); for Black Lives Matter protests, 10 percent (go farther) and 49 percent (too far); and for use of different gender pronouns, 10 percent (go farther) and 51 percent (too far). Since progressives want to press the accelerator on all these things, their approach doesn’t seem like a good fit for this important swing voter group—and really probably for any swing voter group. Moderation = Democratic votes.
8. In the 2022 election, Democrats’ national-facing strategy left some important things out, reflecting the priorities of the progressive groups and the social strata they represent. Stan Greenberg notes:
In the last two months of the midterm election, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans prioritized the cost of living and crime, despite Democrats not speaking about either. In the election survey, they prioritized cost of living, inflation, and economy and jobs—barely intersecting with the priorities of the national Democrats.
Common sense suggests you should pay attention to the issues voters are most concerned about, rather than just singing from the progressive hymnal. It would likely pay off at the ballot box. Moderation = Democratic votes.
9. Speaking of crime, here’s a way to break out of the stalemate and really establish your moderate bona fides (as a number of politicians like incoming Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro did). Greenberg again:
Democrats break through parity when they call out the handful of Democrats who decline to talk about violent crime and public safety and the need to get more police into our communities. A message that says Democrats will not “defund in any way” and support “first responders” gets 7 points more warm than cool responses, in a midterm electorate that Republicans won by 3 points. Tackling your own party on crime is a good way for Democrats to break through.
Say it loud: I’m moderate and I’m proud! The voters will reward you. Moderation = Democratic votes.
10. And one last point: Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to embrace patriotism and dissociate themselves from those who insist America is a benighted, racist nation and always has been. Large majorities of Americans, while they have no objection to looking at the both the bad and good of American history, reject such a one-sided, negative characterization. That includes many voters whose support Democrats desperately need but are now drifting away from them. Greenberg once again:
You can no longer ignore the finding that big majorities of Hispanics and Asian Americans are opposed to the teaching of critical race theory. It is seen as denying America as an exceptional nation.
Progressives may want to deny that but voters don’t want to hear it. It’s far too negative for them. That’s why: Moderation = Democratic votes.
So those are ten reasons Democrats should become more moderate. There really is no alternative. That is, if you want to win and win big.