The 2020 Democratic primary is really an electoral story. Nothing the candidates say about policy on the campaign trail will become law during the campaign.1 But the language of presidential primaries is not electoral — candidates tend not to say, “people of The Left, vote for me, I’m very liberal” or, “Democrats, pick me; sure, I’m progressive, but I’m not so progressive that it ruins my appeal with Republican-leaning independents in the Midwest.”
Instead, the language of presidential primaries is largely one of policy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposes a tax on wealth over $50 million and defends that policy on its merits. She doesn’t say out loud the real, immediate goal of the proposal for her — wooing liberal Democratic primary voters concerned about growing income inequality.
The 2020 candidates are likely to talk a lot about policy over the next year — it’s basically how you run for president. And you should pay attention to what they say, but not for the reasons you might think. Here’s a guide to the “policy primary,” with some thoughts from academics and one-time advisers to presidential candidates.2
1. Most importantly, policy proposals matter because the winning candidate will try to implement them as president.
There is a common view that candidates just promise whatever it takes to win and then abandon all those pledges once in office. But political science research has shown over and over again that politicians, including presidents, try to implement their campaign promises, even the more outlandish ones. We just had a record-long partial government shutdown over a campaign pledge that President Trump has unsuccessfully tried to implement — the border wall.3
So, all else being equal, you can expect follow-through from whoever is elected president on many of the policies he or she put forth during the campaign.
2. Even so, pay more attention to broad goals than fine print.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both came up with proposals to vastly increase the number of Americans with health insurance. They disagreed on the how: Clinton said a comprehensive new health insurance law should require everyone to have insurance or pay a fine; Obama had no such mandate. You know how this turned out — the law now known as Obamacare included an individual mandate.4 Somewhat similarly, during the 2016 race, Trump’s campaign named 21 people that he would consider appointing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Eventual Trump nominee and now Justice Brett Kavanaugh was not among the 21.
That said, one of the 21 was Neil Gorsuch. And the overall group was full of white, male and fairly conservative legal figures — the exact kind of people Trump has appointed to the Supreme Court and lower courts as president.
“One big takeaway from my research is that the ‘policy primary’ gives us less information about the specifics of the plans that might be on the agenda than it does about what issues are likely to be at the top of the agenda,” said Philip Rocco, a political scientist professor at Marquette University who specializes in research on the policymaking process, in an e-mail message.
Looking forward, therefore, I think it’s safe to assume the Democratic candidates running on Medicare-for-all, if elected, will at the very least push for some kind of program in which uninsured Americans can enroll in a public plan along the lines of Medicare. It’s likely Warren will try to implement some kind of new tax on the very wealthy if she is elected.
3. Rank-and-file voters probably aren’t choosing candidates based on their policy plans.
Generally, “the differences on issues [among candidates] in primaries are not huge,” said Elaine Kamarck, who was a top policy adviser to Al Gore during his 2000 presidential run. So most voters probably will not be able to assess subtle differences on policy issues among the 2020 Democratic contenders. After all, political scientists have found American voters broadly know little about politics and policy.
However, Kamarck argued that voters are often well-informed and passionate about issues that particularly affect their regions or states. So a Democratic primary candidate might do poorly in the primaries in Kentucky or West Virginia if he or she has a plan that voters in those states think will severely harm the coal industry.
4. But the policy plans tell voters about a candidate’s priorities and values — and that probably does matter electorally.
“People are not voting for a package of policy preferences, they’re voting for an individual, and the policies or issues help mark out the kind of person they are,” Mark Schmitt, who was a policy adviser on Bill Bradley’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, said in an e-mail message.
So a candidate like Warren or Bernie Sanders with proposals to vastly increase taxes on the wealthy is communicating to voters a persona — “fighting for the little guy,” “taking on the establishment” — that might resonate with voters who are liberal or anti-establishment, even if these voters don’t really know much about, say, marginal tax rates.
Lee Drutman, a scholar at the think tank New America, concluded based on polling data that 2016 Democratic primary voters who preferred Sanders were not significantly more liberal on policy issues than those who backed Hillary Clinton. (Sanders himself certainly was to the left of Clinton.) Instead, voters’ views of the American political system and whether they thought it was fundamentally “rigged” was a strong predictor of which candidate they supported. More anti-establishment Democrats strongly preferred Sanders. That is probably, in part, because his policy proposals, like a single-payer health care system, communicated a break from the more establishment politics of Clinton.
5. Policy details matter to important groups that can offer endorsements — and those endorsements can matter electorally.
In 2016, the National Nurses Association backed Sanders over Clinton, and this wasn’t much of a surprise. The NNA has long pushed for single-payer health care, and Sanders favored that idea and Clinton did not. In making its endorsement, NAA’s leadership specifically noted Sanders’s support of single-payer and his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era trade agreement that Clinton did not oppose as forcefully as Sanders.
So specific issue stands do really matter to key activist groups making endorsements. And that can make an impact electorally. Unions, for example, can organize their members to back candidates. When a Democratic candidate comes out with an education policy plan, that may be an appeal to parents, but it is also likely signaling to teacher unions, a powerful, organized liberal constituency in some states.
“Activists do pay attention” to specific policy ideas and stances, said Andrew Dowdle, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who has written extensively about the presidential nomination process.
6. Pay more attention to the “flop” than the “flip.”
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been criticized for supporting overly punitive approaches to criminal justice in the past, Cory Booker for promoting charter schools, Kirsten Gillibrand for backing conservative immigration legislation, Sanders for opposing some gun control measures earlier in his career. I could go on. The Democratic Party has moved decidedly to the left in recent years, so many of the 2020 presidential candidates have, in their past, violated some of the party’s new tenets.
Scrutinizing candidate’s past records is a big part of any nomination contest. But it may not be a particularly useful exercise in predicting what these candidates would do on policy if elected president. (Note the emphasis on policy — Bill Clinton’s philandering and Trump’s lying before entering office were fairly useful predictors of what came later.)
These candidates are politicians, after all. They probably were taking stands in the past that reflected a mix of conviction and political expediency. Biden likely believed that the “crime bill” he sponsored in 1994 (and is now slammed as helping lead to the over-incarceration of African-Americans) was good policy (it was endorsed by a lot of black political leaders too). I suspect he also thought the legislation was in the political mainstream, helping him to rise up the ranks of the Democratic Party.
David Karol, an expert on the presidential nomination process who teaches at the University of Maryland, told me these “flip-flops” by candidates are often explained by their changing constituencies. He referred specifically to Gillibrand, who was first elected in 2006 in a relatively moderate district in upstate New York before becoming the senator for the entire state, which is fairly liberal-leaning.
“It’s hard to know whether the politician ‘really’ believed in their position at Time 1 or Time 2,” Karol said.
Either way, Democratic elected officials have moved away from a tough-on-crime approach and the party’s voters are now very pro-immigration . I have no doubt a President Biden would govern on criminal justice policy more like how he sounds in 2019 than he did in 1994, and that a President Gillibrand would be more pro-immigration than Candidate Gillibrand in 2006.
The obvious example here is Trump, who took some fairly liberal stands in earlier phases of his life but has generally followed GOP orthodoxy as president, as he promised to do on many issues during his 2016 campaign.
President Ronald “Reagan’s promises on abortion were far better predictors of his policies than his more pro-choice past as California’s governor were. Al Gore was pro-gun and anti-abortion at one point in his career when it made sense for a white southern Democrat to be so. But his campaign promises were better predictors,” Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist who is currently writing a book about presidential primaries, said in an e-mail message.
So the bottom line: Take what the presidential candidates are saying on the campaign trail seriously and literally. But more seriously than literally.