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Are Democrats Headed For A Split Even If Clinton Wins?

In this week’s politics chat, we examine the cracks in the Democratic Party’s coalition. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): The WikiLeaks dumps of hacked Hillary Clinton campaign emails have mostly been 💤. “Clinton Campaign Found To Be Doing Things Campaigns Do” does not a good headline make. But one interesting theme in the emails is the bad-mouthing by Clinton staffers of Bernie Sanders specifically and the left generally. As POLITICO reported:

Some of the left’s most influential voices and groups are taking offense at the way they and their causes were discussed behind their backs by Clinton and some of her closest advisers in the emails, which swipe liberal heroes and causes as “puritanical,” “pompous”, “naive”, “radical” and “dumb,” calling some “freaks,” who need to “get a life.”

So although Clinton is a favorite to win this election, our question for today’s chat is more structural: Are Democrats heading for a foundational split, similar to what the GOP is undergoing, between liberal and centrist Democrats or between outsiders and the more establishment wing of the party?

Let’s start with this, though: Is there evidence of a meaningful split beyond these emails?

julia (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): There’s some. Part of this is change over time. The Democratic Party 20-plus years ago, when Clinton was first lady, was much more moderate. And the more liberal Democratic Party is kind of a recent and partial development. Until 40 years ago, it had a strong conservative wing. (It even had more of a moderate wing until several years ago.) The Democratic Party wasn’t formed to address economic inequality, and I think that’s an issue — perhaps a constellation of issues — that some Democratic voters would like to see it address in a more programmatic, ideological way.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): The split seems to have been patched up in the short term, as Clinton is now getting a fairly typical share of the vote among Democrats — partly because Trump is so unappealing to Democrats of all stripes. But I agree with Julia that it’s becoming a different sort of party in the long term.

micah: So you’re saying the party’s voters have moved further left, at least on some issues, than the party itself (elected officials/the Democratic National Committee/operatives/etc.)?

natesilver: Maybe we can say “activists,” as opposed to voters?

julia: I think it’s not just further left but a qualitative difference in purpose.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Technocratic vs. activist.

natesilver: I remember in 2006, you had lots of support for explicitly moderate, blue dog-type Democrats from Daily Kos and other progressive blogs. Because the important thing was that they had a “D” in their name. Now, that’s much less true. You had Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly a couple of years ago, but otherwise, not very many moderate Democrats winning seats in Congress.

julia: I’d call it a lurching coalition vs. ideological.

micah: Wait — explain that, Julia.


The Democratic Party has historically been a coalition party — a bunch of different groups in society patched together. The New Deal coalition is a classic example of this — you had Northern African-Americans, various ethnic and religious minorities and Southern farmers. You can come up with policy ideas to appeal to all these groups, but there’s not necessarily a core idea that brings them all together.

harry: And what are we seeing now?

julia: This history basically underlies how the party works now. You’ve got unions. You’ve got LGBT groups, interest groups associated with African-American and Latino concerns, increasingly other minority groups. Pro-choice activists. Etc. These groups probably agree about a bunch of different things, but what unites them under the Democratic banner, according to some recent political science research, is the idea that the party is better for their (historically marginalized) group. (I should note dissenting views to this characterization of Democrats.)

natesilver: Well, it seems like the new coalition is college-educated whites and basically all minority voters (including the growing and not-to-be-overlooked Asian-American community).

julia: It’s not that hard to imagine that coalition as Nate described it not all being on the same page.

harry: I guess what’s interesting to me is that the split in the Democratic Party in this year’s presidential primary was age- and somewhat income-based. But it basically teamed up black voters and older white voters who are better off economically.

natesilver: Yeah, does it make sense in the long term to have college-educated whites — who are generally doing pretty well for themselves — in the same coalition as working-class black and Hispanic voters?

julia: I think there are two ways this could go:

  1. Those groups can generally agree on policy but disagree on priorities.
  2. With apologies for the broad brushstroke here, the energy for a True Left seems to be among the college-educated whites — the Bernie Sanders wing, which was pretty overwhelmingly white, with a few exceptions. (I use True Left somewhat ironically. I look forward to the Twitter hate.)

micah: Nonwhite Democrats tend to be more moderate, right?

natesilver: Sort of, but that may be changing along generational lines. Younger Hispanic voters are pretty liberal on gay marriage, for instance.

julia: Yeah, I understand that to be true in a very, very broad sense, but not deeply true, if that makes any sense.

harry: What made very little sense to me in the Democratic primary was that college-educated or wealthier whites were much more pro-Clinton in 2016 than they were in 2008.

natesilver: And if you look at the issues that really unite Democrats, it’s the cultural stuff. Gay marriage was the one thing that was guaranteed to get cheers on the convention floor in Philadelphia. Well, that and critiques of Trump’s racism and sexism.

julia: Harry, I think that actually makes sense if you think about what’s preceding the primary. One hypothesis that I had was that Sanders’s support was coming from people who are on the left but did not come out of the Obama years very well, while Clinton support came from people who were doing OK.

But race complicates the hell out of this picture. One thing I found most interesting, which I may have said before, is that prominent black intellectuals — the ones who are reshaping the discourse around mass incarceration and other racial justice issues, like Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates — were on Team Bernie, but Clinton’s support among black voters was strong.

micah: OK, so let’s talk about how this would play out: Would a split manifest itself during a Clinton presidency? In fights over legislation/Supreme Court appointments/etc.? Or would we have to wait until the next Democratic presidential primary to see the split in action? As in, maybe (if she wins this year) Clinton is challenged for the nomination in 2020.

harry: I tend to doubt that Clinton would face a serious renomination fight if her overall approval ratings were high. I would expect problems over stuff like trade. Big problems.

natesilver: Clinton could get herself caught in a position where there are high expectations, but she doesn’t have a lot of ability to enact her agenda. And that seems like a textbook case for party in-fighting.

julia: One big question IMO is whether liberal Democrats actually hold up legislation over their ideas. Kind of the liberal version of the House Freedom Caucus. It’s hard to argue that it’s been a positive development for the Republicans (I’m allowed to talk about Republicans, right?) — but they sure get their ideas out there. How many people knew the phrase “debt ceiling” before 2011?

harry: But here’s the biggest thing: Sanders had very few backers in Congress.

julia: Yeah. And Democrats aren’t, at the moment, getting primaried the way that Republicans have been.

micah: But Sanders will have more political capital now, and he has vocal supporters. He’s said he’ll try to keep Clinton honest, from his POV.

harry: I think this stuff becomes more of a thing if Clinton becomes less popular.

micah: She’s already not that popular, Harry.

harry: Among Democrats she is.

micah: Ah, yeah.

julia: Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, but in a lot of ways, he’s really the ideological heir to the Progressive movement. He talks about a “movement,” but his candidacy was all about himself and his voters, not a bigger coalition in government, as Harry points out. This is a model of politics that a lot of people find very appealing, but its potential is limited when it comes to governing. Parties really do matter.

But that kind of procedural stuff can divide a party. (By procedural stuff, I mean how we do politics — how much a candidate directly engages voters in a grassroots movement, Sanders-style, versus the perceptions that Clinton is the candidate of party elites.)

natesilver: If Clinton wins by 5+ percentage points, Democrats are going to feel like it’s a big triumph. And the reality — when Clinton is having trouble getting anything passed through what will probably still be a Republican-controlled House — could create some resentment. How are they going to handle the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example? Budget stuff? Policy toward the Time Warner-AT&T merger?

In theory, you have a centrist, establishment coalition and populists on both wings who might be in opposition. But the way it plays out is pretty unpredictable and potentially pretty dysfunctional, I think.

julia: To some extent, I see the split between the two wings of the Democratic Party being as much about the role of parties and how party politics are practiced as about trade or whatever.

IMO this has certainly been the story of the Republicans. The rebellion within the Republican Party is partially about the power of party elites, the representation of rank-and-file voters, and the issue of compromise with the other side. These themes were all prominent in Sanders’s campaign too, alongside topics like campaign finance reform. There’s a definite strain of “if we just empower the people, we’ll get what we want,” alongside skepticism about compromise with Republicans and suspicion of the DNC as an organization.

micah: Let’s give a sense of scale here: The fractures in the Democratic Party are nowhere near as bad as in the GOP, right? I mean, you have a Republican Party right now in which a majority of the party’s voters don’t really care about the agenda of the Republican House speaker.

harry: You have the Republican presidential nominee bashing the Republican speaker of the House. Clinton, meanwhile, won more endorsements during her primary than anyone since 1972.

natesilver: The Republicans are experiencing like a magnitude 8.8 on the political Richter scale. And Democrats are at like a 6.2. And remember that the Richter scale is exponential.

micah: So let’s use the Richter Scale to put all this in context: Where would the GOP’s structural problems rate and where would the Democrats’?


julia: Did you guys come up with that independently? I’m kinda weirded out now.

micah: haha

harry: This is weird.

micah: I’ve worked with Nate for too long.

julia: I’m now imagining that you are also dressed alike.

micah: Actually, Nate’s in a suit today!

julia: But, yeah, at the moment it’s nowhere near as bad for Democrats. Which is pretty impressive after a two-term presidency. But the concern I would have if I were a Democratic activist is that the Democrats, like the Republicans, don’t have a lot of mechanisms by which to resolve party disputes. Their organization has suffered a pretty bad blow to its legitimacy.

harry: The thing to remember here is that reliable Democratic voters were far more likely to back Clinton than Sanders. That’s very different than on the Republican side, where Trump voters were the reliable ones. Ergo, Democratic incumbents don’t really need to fear a primary challenge as much as Republicans do (as Julia mentioned earlier).

julia: I’d put the Democrats at 5 and the Republicans at 7.

natesilver: Here’s another question: What happens to #NeverTrump Republicans who cross over to vote for Clinton? Do Democrats have any hope of holding on to them?

micah: Only I am allowed to ask questions here, Nate.

julia: Maybe if the Republicans have another cycle in the woods, which I think is a possibility.

micah: I think it’ll be very hard for Democrats to hold onto the John Kasichs of the world. They just disagree on so much.

julia: I don’t think the Republicans are going to collapse; I think they are going to have a protracted period of division and suffering, outcome unknown. But I don’t see the Democrats ideologically moderating enough to make that strategy a possibility (appealing to the Kasich crowd).

micah: Right. And without Trump as a sword of Damocles, the Kasich voter doesn’t have enough motivation to set up camp long term with Clinton.

harry: “Sword of Damocles”? What is going on here?

julia: I don’t know. I’m Googling … Here’s an explainer from NPR.

micah: Ah, apparently I’m misusing that reference. From that NPR piece: “The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It’s not just, oh, something terrible is going to happen, but it’s about realizing that what looks like an enviable life, a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury is, in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.”

natesilver: But we haven’t explored the other half of this, which is what happens when the GOP comes to be even more dominated by working-class white voters, particularly working-class men. Does the Kasich voter who’s making $200,000 a year as a lawyer in Shaker Heights feel like she’s a part of that coalition?

harry: You have said, Nate, that Trump is helping to exacerbate trends already seen in the electorate.

natesilver: Yeah, but it might leave those Kasich-y Republicans without a home. Even though they’re very active and turn out to vote at high rates and donate a lot of money.

julia: An important twist on that question is whether those two groups can keep coming together on taxes, or abortion, for different reasons.

My literal answer to your question, Nate, depends on whether your hypothetical voter is a woman or a man.

natesilver: Yeah, for sure. I struggled with what gender pronoun to use in that sentence.

harry: You can have a real divergence between the Park Avenue Democrat and the Youngstown Democrat.

natesilver: But … part of what I think you’re saying, Julia — or maybe this is what I’m saying — is that Democrats are becoming a more ideological party, with some notion of egalitarianism being central to that ideology. So I wonder how the “please keep my taxes low but also don’t hate on gay and black people” Republicans are going to fit in, especially with Democrats moving to the left on fiscal policy.

julia: Yeah, and this was an especially prominent line (wrt gay people) during the George W. Bush years. I suppose it comes down to what matters more to people — that sense of identity, or pocketbook-related policy. I suspect that differs across individuals.

natesilver: Yeah, it seems dangerous in a lot of ways when all the elites (cultural, financial, intellectual) wind up in one party.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.