Research by Ballotpedia and Roey Hadar, Lee Harris, Adam Kelsey, Adia Robinson, Meena Venkataramanan and Johnny Verhovek of ABC News.
This story was produced in collaboration with ABC News and Ballotpedia.1
Two of the three Bernie Sanders-endorsed candidates who were on the ballot last Tuesday lost their primary races — Abdul El-Sayed of Michigan and Brent Welder of Kansas were defeated, while fellow Kansan James Thompson advanced to the general election. Not surprisingly, commentators were quick to proclaim that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is flaming out in 2018 primaries.
The debate over whether progressivism is the way forward for Democrats didn’t start this year. It’s been raging at least since the 2016 presidential primary,2 when Sanders’s formidable run demonstrated the popularity of progressive policies like Medicare for all. But now that we’re more than halfway through the 2018 primary season, we can get a more conclusive reading of where Democrats are heading. As we described in our first installment in this series, FiveThirtyEight, ABC News and Ballotpedia together canvassed the personal and ideological traits of the 811 Democratic candidates who, as of Aug. 7, had appeared on the ballot in “open” Democratic races — those with no Democratic incumbent3 — for Senate, House and governorships. Using endorsement data from various interest groups, we can determine which wing of the party candidates belong to, and using the share of the vote they received in their primaries, we can determine how well candidates’ positions worked out for them.4
The party (mostly) decides
Since 2016, a number of groups have emerged to elect explicitly progressive Democrats. For example, Justice Democrats was formed in 2017 and describes its mission as working to “elect a new type of Democratic majority in Congress.” The candidates it endorses do not take money from corporate PACs or corporate lobbyists and generally agree with the group’s platform, which includes a federal jobs guarantee, tuition-free public college and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Another progressive group, Our Revolution, was founded in 2016 and describes itself as “the next step for Bernie Sanders’ movement.” Indivisible also sprung up in 2017 and is aimed at dismantling the “Trump agenda.” Other groups, like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Working Families Party, have been around longer, but their missions are the largely the same — electing more progressives.
According to our data, 41 percent of candidates who received an endorsement from one or more of these progressive groups5 won their primary races. The most successful progressive group was the PCCC; the candidates it endorsed won about 67 percent of the time.6 Justice Democrats and Our Revolution had the worst win rates — candidates they endorsed won only 32 percent of their primaries (but they also endorsed more people overall, giving their candidates more chances to lose). Although those endorsed by progressive groups may not always win, in many races they are shifting the policy debate and forcing favored candidates to at least address some of their progressive stances. Take, for instance, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s incumbent governor. Since Cynthia Nixon, who has won endorsements from all five of the progressive groups we analyzed, announced she would challenge Cuomo in the Democratic primary, the governor has changed his tune on marijuana legalization and announced new progressive plans like voting rights for parolees.
The organization with the best endorsement record in Democratic primaries remains the Democratic Party itself. Candidates who are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue List or endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee7 had a win rate of 95 percent (37 wins out of 39 endorsements). In races where a party-endorsed candidate ran against a progressive-group-endorsed candidate (excluding any races where a candidate was endorsed by both sides), the party-endorsed candidate won 89 percent of the time.
In other words, the best predictor of primary success remains establishment support.
However, there are several caveats: First, we don’t know which way the causation runs. The Democratic establishment is probably purposefully lining up behind candidates who were already the strongest in their field. Second, “establishment” isn’t a synonym for “moderate,” so the success of establishment candidates doesn’t necessarily mean that progressives are losing. For instance, eight party-backed candidates were also endorsed by at least one progressive group. And at least one group explicitly backing centrist candidates in Democratic primaries has struck out so far. Groups financed by No Labels — a bipartisan organization pushing for more compromise in Congress — have supported candidates in two open Democratic primaries so far this year, and neither won.
2020 in 2018
Three of the highest-profile potential contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have all been active on the 2018 campaign trail, including supporting their preferred candidates with endorsements and rallies. If the candidates they endorse are avatars for their own 2020 campaigns, then Biden and Warren should be feeling pretty good right now. Candidates they endorsed have won 100 percent of their primaries so far in 2018, though each only endorsed a handful of people: Biden’s candidates went 10 for 10 and Warren’s went five for five. However, it’s worth noting that Biden mostly endorsed candidates who were facing token primary opposition, while most of the people Warren endorsed won truly competitive races. Finally, Bernie Sanders endorsed nine candidates, five of whom advanced to the general election, for a win rate of 56 percent.
Are Democrats interested in special interests?
- Emily’s List, which recruits pro-choice Democratic women for office, endorsed 54 candidates we analyzed. Thirty-nine — 72 percent — won their races. That’s an even higher win rate than among women overall (46 percent), and women, in turn, have a win rate that’s twice as good as men’s (23 percent). The Emily’s List bump may have to do with their prodigious fundraising and spending on the candidates’ behalf; the group raised over $90 million during the 2016 election cycle. In 2018, the group has been showering their candidates with money.
- Six months after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, appeared to spark sustained liberal activism, are Democratic primary voters voting for pro-gun-control candidates? To measure this, we counted up all the candidates who were labeled “gun sense candidates”8 by Moms Demand Action, part of the Everytown for Gun Safety organization. In races that have been called so far, 192 candidates were granted that label and 79 of them won, for a win rate of 41 percent. But in many cases, gun sense candidates were running against each other in the same districts, which brought their overall win rate down. It might be fairer to look at the how often any gun sense candidate was nominated in races where at least one person received that designation; when we do that, we find that a gun sense candidate won the Democratic nomination in 79 percent of races where Moms Demand Action had awarded the designation to at least one candidate.
- Last week, we found that military veterans and nonveterans are doing about equally well in Democratic primaries so far. It’s unsurprising, then, that candidates endorsed by VoteVets — a progressive organization whose goal is to promote veterans’ interests and elect more vets to public office — have a fairly average win rate of 57 percent. Notably, however, veterans endorsed by VoteVets do better than veterans the organization did not endorse (22 percent win rate). Whether that is because VoteVets’ ads sway voters or just because the group endorses the strongest veteran candidates is unclear.
Overall, candidates backed by the party establishment are clearly outperforming those backed by more #Resistance-flavored groups. More established interest groups have also tended to have better endorsement records than their activist brethren.
Which endorsers have the best track record in primaries?
How candidates endorsed by selected people and groups have fared in open Democratic primaries for Senate, House and governor in 2018
|Democratic Party committees||39||37||95|
|Working Families Party||30||15||50|
But as we mentioned, that doesn’t mean that the progressive agenda is losing in 2018. The candidates who beat the Sanders-endorsed El-Sayed and Welder? Gretchen Whitmer supports a $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana, and Sharice Davids is a gay Native American woman campaigning on a child-care tax credit and treating gun violence as a health care crisis. As the data shows, “establishment vs. progressive” is a bit of a false dichotomy.