When several Democratic presidential candidates addressed Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, he asked each if they backed a commission to consider some “form of apology and compensation” to atone for slavery. Most said they would.
At the She the People forum in Houston, candidates were asked what they would do for women of color. And coming up in San Francisco, the liberal group MoveOn.org will seek Democratic commitments to what it calls “bold, progressive, transformative ideas.”
These kinds of events — plus polls showing increasing numbers of Democrats consider themselves liberal — have created an erroneous impression the 2020 Democratic race will be dominated by liberal activists who make the loudest noise and the strongest demands.
But statistical evidence suggests Democratic voters are less liberal than the activists and that the left lane might not be the best path to the nomination. That has been underscored by the way Joe Biden has re-shaped the Democratic presidential race in just a few short weeks.
Since formalizing his candidacy, the former vice president, who had adopted a more centrist course, has increased his already strong lead over the large Democratic field. But his more important impact has been to encourage two important changes among them.
First, several rivals, notably Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, have followed Biden in focusing rhetoric more directly on President Donald Trump, reflecting the belief his defeat is more important than any specific policies. O’Rourke now regularly calls for Trump’s impeachment.
Second, the candidate whose support dropped the most was 2016 runner-up Bernie Sanders, who has sought to push the party ideologically to the left. While still second in almost every poll, the Vermont independent’s numbers have dropped in almost direct proportion to Biden’s gain.
His decline has been accompanied by some retreat by others from stressing the more liberal policy positions Sanders has championed, like Medicare for all, free college, and letting imprisoned felons vote.
A recent story in The New York Times, noting how Harris was retooling her message more toward Trump, said her top media advisers concluded after conducting focus groups in early primary and caucus states “she should not bow to the activists” in pushing some liberal agenda items she previously stressed. In particular, the story noted the problems she encountered in saying Americans might have to give up private health insurance, a position she has now revised, and waffling on giving voting rights to jailed felons.
A majority of self-identified Democratic voters, CNN analyst Harry Enten wrote recently, are over 50, moderate or conservative, and don’t have college degrees. Similarly, a recent Monmouth New Hampshire poll showed more than half of likely Democratic primary voters there identified themselves as moderate or conservative.
But the Iowa caucuses come first, and polls show Democrats there have moved left in the past decade. However, a March Iowa Poll also displayed centrist instincts there. Asked if candidates were too liberal, too conservative or just right, 70% said Biden was just right, compared with 14% who said he was too conservative. But 44% said Sanders was too liberal, compared with 48% who said he was just right.
Past Iowa results dispute the conclusion that, because of small turnouts in caucus states, liberal activists dominate the outcome. The most liberal candidate has only won once in the eight contested Iowa races over the past 44 years. That was Barack Obama, and his 2008 success stemmed as much from his candidate skills and the historic nature of his candidacy as from positions like his early opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The narrowness of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 victory over Sanders was likely due as much to her unpopularity as his more liberal positions. Besides, unlike other caucus states, large Iowa caucus turnouts make it more like a primary and reduce the role of liberal activists.
In 2016, about 171,000 participated in the caucuses, only 11,000 fewer than voted in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. But 2008 turnout was a record 239,000, and 2020 will likely be even bigger because of anti-Trump sentiment and the adoption, for the first time, of absentee voting.
A similar turnout spike could also occur in New Hampshire, barring a serious re-nomination challenge to Trump, because the Democratic vote would be swelled by independents who can vote in either party’s primary.
Liberal activists are also unlikely to dominate the next two states, the Nevada caucuses, where union members and Hispanics are the crucial participants, and the South Carolina primary, where African-Americans comprise more than half of Democratic voters. Those groups are not as liberal as white, upper class, college-educated voters.
Republicans like to portray the Democrats as reflecting the socialist policies of Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently predicted Sanders would be the Democratic nominee.
The current Biden lead may yet prove more holding action than real support. But if he falters, Democratic demographics suggest the end result is more likely to reflect desire for a younger, fresher face than a push to the left.