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Which Wings Of The Party Are Winning The Democratic Primary?

Back in March, before the 2020 Democratic primary contest really ramped up, I wrote an article about the divides in the Democratic Party at the level of activists and elected officials. There are splits along several fronts, but the main fault line runs between two more liberal factions on the one side — I dubbed them the “Super Progressives” and the “Very Progressives” — and two more center-left ones — the “Progressive Old Guard” and the “Progressive New Guard.” (You can read that original article for fuller descriptions of those groups, but in short: Think Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for “Super Progressives,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren for “Very Progressives,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg for “Progressive New Guard” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “Progressive Old Guard.”)

In March, though, it wasn’t clear how these wings would interact in the Democratic primary, or more generally in the run-up to 2020. Which would voters rally behind? What would they argue about?

The 2020 primary process and what’s happened on Capitol Hill over the last few months has started to answer those questions, clarifying the deep divisions between the party’s left and its center-left. And, at least so far, those divisions have revolved around (i) health care, (ii) how much the party should take on corporations and the wealthy, and (iii) race.

Health care

Earlier this year, “Medicare for All” — the idea that a government-run health insurance plan along the lines of Medicare should replace private insurance — looked on its way to becoming the Democratic Party’s de facto approach on health care, with Democrats wary of the concept in the clear minority. A House bill introduced in February by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, one of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, got a majority of House Democrats behind it. Even 2020 candidates closer to the ideological center than Warren or Bernie Sanders, including Kamala Harris (Progressive New Guard) and Buttigieg, were leaning into the idea.

But former vice president Biden (“Progressive Old Guard”) entered the race at the top of the polls and has emphatically run against M4A. Pelosi and more moderate Democrats have echoed his wariness, arguing that M4A is both too complicated to implement and too electorally risky. With the politics of the issue changing, Harris came up with a more modest M4A plan than the one written by Jayapal, while Buttigieg started aping Biden’s stronger anti-M4A rhetoric.

Warren, Sanders and the party’s liberal wing remain deeply committed to the idea. They have strongly defended Medicare for All and cast its opponents as in the pockets of the health insurance industry.

So which side is winning? On M4A, I would argue that the more moderate wings have the upper hand for now. You can see that in the Buttigieg and Harris campaigns, in which both felt the need to shift their rhetoric away from M4A. Polling suggests Democratic voters have fairly positive views of M4A, but Democrats also really like more incremental approaches (like building on Obamacare or “Medicare for all who want it”). And full-fledged M4A is fairly controversial with the broader electorate. Here, for example, are the results from a Marist College survey conducted over the summer:

How much support do various Democratic policies get?

Percentage supporting each policy position

Policy position Democrats Republicans Adults
Medicare for All who want it 90% 46% 70%
Wealth tax 88 32 62
Green new deal 86 26 63
Assault weapons ban 83 29 57
Legalizing marijuana 74 41 63
Medicare for All 64 14 41
Abolishing death penalty 55 16 36
Reparations 46 3 27

Source: Marist poll

If Sanders or Warren makes it to the general election, he or she will face a lot of pressure from the broader Democratic Party to soften his or her health care stands. In fact, Warren is already doing so, putting out a plan last week that essentially would put off a full push to put all Americans under Medicare for All until her third year in office.

Confronting the wealthy

If the more progressive wings of the Democratic Party have lost ground on health care, I think they might be winning the intra-party debate over how Democrats should approach the wealthy and corporations.

Let me briefly explain the party fissure here. Both Sanders and Warren have embraced specific taxes on wealth, as opposed to more traditional Democratic proposals to increase income taxes on upper-income Americans and businesses. Both are refusing to attend fundraisers in which big donors could have special access to them. Warren, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and liberal activists are increasingly critical of billionaires, suggesting they are often barriers to political change and the fact that they have so much wealth in and of itself illustrates flaws with America’s economic system. Warren, in particular, has called for the breakup of big tech companies and much more aggressive oversight of Wall Street and Washington lobbying.

None of the other Democratic candidates in the 2020 race have embraced this highly confrontational approach with the wealthy and major corporations. But it’s not like the center-left in the Democratic Party is going around defending billionaires (that would be politically stupid), so this divide is a bit harder to see in the wild. My guess is that some of the center-left candidates think ideas like the wealth tax are not practical or realistic. The candidates who don’t have big small-donor bases like Sanders and Warren — so basically the rest of them — have some incentive not to bash the rich; those candidates need wealthy donors to help finance their campaigns. And the candidates who don’t win the presidency might want to get lucrative jobs on Wall Street or K Street or become paid speakers — career paths that are easier if wealthy Americans don’t hate you.

We don’t have a lot of polling on say, whether voters want their candidates to attend big-dollar fundraisers. But a number of polls, like the Marist one above, suggest the wealth tax is fairly popular. And the broader concept that the wealthy have too much power is even more popular — basically unifying Democrats and even getting some Republican support. And politically it’s hard to really defend the wealthy. No candidate wants to say, “If I am president, I guarantee my big donors will have special access to me.”

So in terms of taking on wealthy individuals and big companies, the center-left is generally moving toward the left’s positions (at least publicly). Center-left 2020 candidates, like Buttigieg and Harris, are suggesting that Facebook in particular has too much power and criticizing the tech companies more directly. Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly slamming Facebook, with some even praising Warren specifically for leading them toward this stance. Left-leaning billionaires themselves are suggesting the political system is too weighted toward giving them power.


The racial debate is even less out in the open than the one about taking on the wealthy. But it’s there. Sanders and Warren favor a commission to study the idea of reparations for black Americans. Sanders and Warren want to change crossing the border illegally from a criminal to a civil offense. The Vermont senator wants to allow people currently incarcerated to vote and has suggested he would suspend U.S. foreign aid to Israel if it doesn’t improve how it treats the Palestinians. Biden and more centrist Democrats generally aren’t embracing these ideas.

I doubt Biden really is deeply opposed on principle to allowing people in jail to vote or some kind of effort to address the legacy of slavery and its effects on black Americans. But some of these ideas are fairly unpopular with the overall electorate, and he has likely decided they are not worth the cost of losing any voters, while Sanders and Warren haven’t made that same calculus. So on this bloc of issues, Biden is not really leaning into his opposition, nor are Warren and Sanders really leaning into their support.

So those are the huge divides. You’ll notice that many of these policies have little chance of becoming law, and I think everyone knows that. After all, Democrats are heavy underdogs to win a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate in 2020 and even if they do, that majority will include members such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin who aren’t likely to embrace transformational policies such as M4A.1

Instead, many of these fights are really a proxy for broader debates within the Democratic Party: Should Democrats set really big goals and push hard for them, like Medicare for All, as opposed to govern in a more incremental way? Should Democrats reject some of the centrism on economic issues and alliances with big business and Wall Street of the Clinton and Obama years for a more aggressive populism? How willing should Democrats be to push for policies, like allowing those currently incarcerated to vote, that might disproportionately benefit people of color but offend some white voters, who likely will be as much as two thirds of the electorate in 2020? Many liberals think President Barack Obama aimed too low during the Obamacare debates (and on other issues too) and ended up accomplishing less because he was focused on building consensus with both corporate interests and congressional Republicans. Democrats like Biden and Pelosi generally believe that more incremental change is all that is possible in a divided country — and that setting really big goals only makes it harder to win the election.

It’s worth noting what is not dividing the party. Biden and the party’s center-left have essentially conceded to the left in embracing Green New Deal style-climate change plans, aggressive efforts to reform the criminal justice system and the impeachment of President Donald Trump. But the left has basically lost to the left-center in the intraparty fights over abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (even Warren has not embraced that idea) and very aggressive gun control proposals like a mandatory buyback program.

I’m obviously not hitting every issue here. (Foreign policy is complicated, both in describing the exact fissures in the party and in terms of which side is winning. So is, say, education.) Also, I should emphasize, Democratic voters aren’t necessarily divided in this way. There is evidence that Warren’s support is more concentrated among the party’s most liberal voters, while Biden and Buttigieg are stronger with “somewhat liberal” and “moderate” voters. But there is also evidence that voters aren’t seeing the race largely on ideological terms. The second-choice candidate, for example, for some who back Buttigieg is Warren.

But broadly, Democratic voters over the next few months will be choosing between a wing of the party, represented now by Biden and Buttigieg, that is generally wary of racial policy ideas that might piss off lots of white people, M4A and really taking on the wealthy, versus Sanders and Warren, who view those approaches more favorably. Which wing wins the primary will have major implications for both the 2020 elections and what happens after (either Democrats win the election and govern in the style of the winner’s wing or lose and wonder if they should have pursued the other course). So this fight really matters.


  1. The idea currently has the support of only about a dozen of the 47 Democratic senators.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.