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Will ‘The Squad’ vs. Pelosi Be A Big Problem For Democrats In 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last week, congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib captured headlines for breaking with House Democrats and Nancy Pelosi on an emergency border aid bill that lacked protections for migrant children.

This wasn’t the first time the so-called “Squad” broke ranks. Or the first time their public disagreement with House leadership has led to sniping in the press (Pelosi told New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd that “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”)

But it’s not just Democratic leadership taking aim. Republicans have tried to paint “the Squad” as part of the “radical left,” and the direction the party is moving in. And on Sunday, President Trump sparked a firestorm — at least among Democrats — when he tweeted that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

So what is it about the Squad that has captured the attention of both Republicans and Democrats? Let’s try to tackle this in two parts: 1) What role do we think the Squad has in pushing the Democratic Party in a new direction? 2) And what, if any, do we think will be the electoral repercussions in 2020?

To get us started, what do we make of the news surrounding the Squad and their split from Pelosi and House Democrats on the emergency border aid bill?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Well, I can start from providing the view from poli sci Twitter, which tends to be a fairly pro-party group of people (and leans Democratic/anti-Trump). So in response to the Twitter fight between the House Democrats’ account and AOC’s chief of staff, there was a lot of talk like “have these fights behind closed doors, don’t have a big, public blowup.”

But I disagree. Party infighting should not be done in a smoke-filled room. That’s just not what people want from politics anymore, and I think when that does happen, it contributes to further institutional distrust and disengagement.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’d note that AOC has a Trump score of 18 percent, meaning that she’s voted in line with Trump’s position 18 percent of the time. But according to her data, you’d expect her to vote with Trump about… 0 percent of the time based on how liberal her district is.

So she’s actually proving a bit problematic for Pelosi, in the sense that she should be a guaranteed vote, but Pelosi is only getting her ~80 percent of the time. Except none of this has really mattered since Pelosi has room to spare in the House, and a lot of legislation that passes the House has no chance of passing a GOP-led Senate anyway.

sarahf: Is there at least an argument to be made that Pelosi and the Squad should take fewer swipes at each other over their disagreements, as too much of a focus on intraparty fighting can’t be good for the party?

julia_azari: So here’s my galaxy brain take.

natesilver:

julia_azari: It’s good for the Squad for Pelosi, at least, to take swipes at them. After all, part of the anti-establishment brand is to be in tension with, well, the establishment. And it’s possible that leaders like Pelosi know this! What I’m not really sure about is how good the Squad (so much shorter than typing all their names) is for the Democratic Party.

I don’t think they’re a problem, but it’s too early to gauge their party-building potential. And obviously, they make some people nervous. But if the goal is to engage young people, women and people of color, and keep the left flank of the party somewhat happy, they seem like a good bet.

I am really long-winded today. #sorrynotsorry

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It would be smart for the party establishment to think of this as natural tension between the wings of the party.

The problem is I don’t think they actually do, which is one of the reasons why this is all so interesting. (The House leadership’s official Twitter account attacked AOC’s chief of staff over the weekend, with the implication that she should fire him.)

sarahf: To Julia’s point about the Squad’s party-building potential, isn’t there an argument to be made that they don’t even need to have that? Their ethos is that they’re here to do away with the old system. They agitate for change; they don’t need to bridge consensus within the party, unlike say, Pelosi, who has a very different role to play.

And the fact that virtually all of the 2020 Democratic candidates have a position on the Green New Deal is a testament to their effectiveness at pushing the party in new directions, no?

julia_azari: Right. Which maybe Pelosi likes and maybe she doesn’t. Obviously, moving to the left carries risks. But (and this is where I got into it with a bunch of people on Twitter on Sunday), it’s not clear to me that Democratic leaders actually want to go back to the 1990s and early 2000s.

Yes, the party was moreprofessionalized,” and less split internally, than it is now. It also won two plurality elections and lost to George W. Bush. Not to mention, voter turnout was low.

So one lesson you might learn from the 2008 period onward is that the party does well with fresh faces, even if it also has to win suburban swing districts that might not view AOC and Rashida Tlaib all that favorably.

perry: But the Democratic establishment (I don’t know about Pelosi, personally) seems to think that the prominence of these four women is not a natural, healthy tension, and instead is broadly bad for the party.

And I think their preferred outcome is that the AOC wing basically stays quiet until December 2020 (after the presidential election). That’s where the real tension is.

julia_azari: We’ve (and here, I specifically mean academics and the media) way overemphasized the concept of party unity.

sarahf: I guess I just don’t understand why the Democratic establishment is making this into such a big deal. But I agree with Perry that they definitely would prefer the AOC wing of the party stay quiet, especially when polls like this are leaked. (Axios wouldn’t disclose the group that conducted the poll, so there’s a lot we don’t know about it, and its findings should be treated with skepticism. But it reportedly found that many likely general election voters who are white and have two years or less of college education had a negative opinion of AOC and socialism.)

julia_azari: For the record, that Axios piece is extremely misleading.

sarahf: 🔥

It’s just hard for me to believe that these four women really would have that much of an impact on 2020?

natesilver: I kinda come back to Occam’s razor on this. When you have a bunch of new members who want to push the party in a more ideological direction, it usually entails electoral risk. But the benefit, potentially, is that you also shift the party’s platform in that direction.

perry: Yes, but so many party establishment people want to take away any unnecessary election risks–and I think they would argue AOC talking about getting rid of the Department of Homeland Security, for example, is an unnecessary election risk.

natesilver: It’s also probably a very marginal electoral risk in a world where Donald Trump is president and there’s much bigger news all the time.

julia_azari: Part of the problem is that the lessons of 2016 aren’t clear. You could say that 2016 showed that there was a real push to move Democrats to the left. Or you could say that 2016 was about how Democrats lost groups of voters to Republicans (e.g. the diploma divide among white voters). And those forces push the party in different directions.

perry: The party establishment is probably overstating the rise of the AOC wing in terms of affecting the 2020 elections. But their risk assessment, I think, is driving these tensions–leading Pelosi to bash the AOC wing fairly often, for example.

natesilver: But it’s not crazy for the party establishment to be worried about it! Sometimes I think everyone in this discussion is not always clear about what they think will be electorally advantageous versus what they do — or don’t — like policywise.

julia_azari: Most of this in relation to the Squad is marginal, though, no matter how many hot headlines Axios posts with polls that don’t actually say anything about AOC being the face of the party or about swing states.

natesilver: Journalistic malpractice on Axios’s part TBH to publish a poll without even listing who conducted the poll.

We don’t even know who leaked it. We don’t even know if the poll was real. We should be that skeptical when basic facts and details about a poll are missing like that.

sarahf: That’s fair. And I know we’ve talked about this before, but I think part of what we’re seeing play out here, especially with AOC, is there is now a group of politicians that aren’t willing to play by the old rules. And they will use their large social media followings to get their message across, and on their terms.

So maybe party leadership is scared of losing control?

And so we see Pelosi snipe about how they’re only four votes.

Maybe the Freedom Caucus and the headaches it has caused for the Republican Party has so scarred Democratic leadership that they’ll do anything to stop this faction of their party from growing.

But is this kind of fear misplaced? How much is the Squad really moving the party to the left?

natesilver: Clare said this yesterday on the podcast, but the Squad are very effective at getting media attention, and the media is quite happy to play up the “Democrats IN DISARRAY!” storylines. So in that sense it does seem like a mistake for Pelosi et al. to hit back at them.

perry: About a third of the 235 House Democrats (CNN has this number at 82) support starting an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Ninety-five support the Green New Deal; 118 support Medicare for All. So just in terms of raw numbers, the positions of the AOC wing are much broader than four people.

I think the big shift for Pelosi is that she has never had a vocal, powerful group saying that she is too far to the right. For basically the entire time Pelosi has led the House Democrats, her biggest tension has been with the right flank of the party — some conservative Democrats in the House thought that she was too far to the left.

But now, Pelosi is being attacked from the left in a serious way, for the first time. And I actually think she and Biden are responding in similar ways to these attacks from the left.

My sense is they both see themselves as liberal icons–the man who helped elect the first black president, the woman who pushed through a huge health care reform that extended insurance to millions. And I think this criticism from the younger generation of Democrats makes them mad. Pelosi seems indignant at times, so does Biden.

julia_azari: Biden and Pelosi also managed to establish themselves as liberals when cultural/LGBT issues were on the rise in the party, and you didn’t have to do anything particularly radical to be liberal enough on economics and race.

In 2019, it takes more to be a liberal icon.

natesilver: I mean… I don’t know that the Squad always pick their battles all that well, and in that sense they are pretty Freedom Caucus-like. On the other hand, they have a lot more star power than the Freedom Caucus. There is a lot of political talent there.

And they’re all pretty young. So a lot of my critiques of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, for instance, i.e. that he doesn’t have a good plan to expand his base, definitely doesn’t apply to the Squad when they can unify leftist Democrats with nonwhite Democrats.

sarahf: Something I think we’re all touching on here is the fact that it is four women of color pushing the party to the left and challenging the status quo. And that matters. Each of them have made appeals to their background and how they represent people who historically haven’t had a seat at the table.

And this probably, to put it bluntly, does make certain older vanguards of the party uncomfortable, because they consider themselves to be liberal, and that now they’re forced to reckon with the idea that they’re maybe not as liberal as they think.

perry: I want to come back to something Nate said earlier that I think is essential.

“Sometimes I think everyone in this discussion is not always clear about what they think will be electorally advantageous versus what they do — or don’t — like policywise.”

The AOC wing at times says its ideas, like Medicare for All, are both the right thing to do on policy AND will help Democrats electorally, by either increasing turnout among people who might not otherwise vote or appealing to swing voters. Whereas the establishment wing often says a policy is bad on substance and that it will hurt Democrats’ chances in 2020.

To me, both sides are overconfident in saying that their policy views are the best electoral position, too.

natesilver: I get annoyed by this sort of question for a couple of different reasons. On the one hand, I think it’s generally bullshit to think that a policy that polls as being quite unpopular will magically turn out to be electorally helpful because it motivates the base or whatever.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bullshit in which more establishment/centrist Democrats will deride a policy for being unpopular, when their real motivation against it is that they don’t like the policy.

perry: I know it’s our job to analyze elections. But I think it’s really hard to figure out exactly how policy ideas and outcomes affect election results. So I find claims people make suggesting “Policy X is unpopular so Candidate Y will lose” to be way too overconfident at times. At the same time, we can make some judgements.

For example, “Medicare for everyone who wants it’ (the basic position of Biden, Pete Buttigieg and other more centrist Democrats) is probably a safer political position than “Medicare for everyone and change the whole system” (the stance of AOC and Sanders). I say that even though Medicare for All might be a better health care policy.

natesilver: “Medicare for everyone who wants it” is indeed quite a bit more popular than “Medicare for all,” and one of the reasons “Medicare for all” polls well is because people assume “Medicare for all” means “Medicare for everyone who wants it.”

julia_azari: So my view on the policy thing is complicated. Nate has the Occam’s razor view that I think makes sense, but here’s another galaxy-brain take. I spend most of my time in Wisconsin, a state with a long anti-establishment political tradition, and around a lot of younger people (my students), so my sense of how popular some anti-establishment and left-leaning policies are is probably inflated. But in general, I think most people are NOT sophisticated on policy specifics, but they are sensitive to scary images and wording. There’s even evidence that policies that sound too left-leaning or disruptive are especially vulnerable to scary images and messaging. So while it might seem like a lot of people are not happy with the status quo, that does not mean major, risky policy change isn’t still intimidating.

perry: That’s well put. Medicare for All is very vulnerable to scare tactics.

sarahf: Especially when abolishing private insurance enters the equation.

natesilver: I don’t know. I sort of agree with Vox’s Matt Yglesias that people are learning the wrong lesson from Trump. He was actually perceived as a relative moderate by voters in 2016.

perry: I understand many voters said that Trump was more moderate than Clinton.

But I just have a hard time with this idea that the candidate who ran calling for a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States and suggested that he would “lock up” his opponent was the moderate candidate.

natesilver: IDK, I think we’ve shifted from a media environment in which a lot of outlets took an (implicitly center or center-left) “view from nowhere” to one in which the media is more outspoken, and the difference between partisan and nonpartisan media is a little blurrier.

And I think that’s shifted the assumptions about whether centrism is electorally advantageous in a direction that claims that, actually, elections are all about turning out your base. But I don’t think there’s actually any evidence that how you win elections has changed.

julia_azari: I don’t think I read Matt’s piece but that’s not gonna stop me from saying I’m not sure I think the discussion around moderate candidates is useful. Even if Trump was thought of as a moderate, he ran in a way that criticized the status quo.

Basically I’ve become one of those Twitter trolls who reads the headline and then makes a critique.

natesilver: Trump also won independents 46-42 though!

sarahf: We can’t downplay just how much Clinton and Trump were disliked in 2016, though. Yes, Trump won, but that might say more about how we think about women in politics more than anything else.

natesilver: What if Clinton had run as more of a centrist, though? Would she have gotten more than 8 percent of the Republican vote? The Democrats had a pretty darn liberal platform.

julia_azari: My suspicion is that it’s a wash, but I may be discounting the impact of Democrats being perceived as too left/liberal.

sarahf: If Clinton had higher favorables, I don’t think it would have mattered how she ran, i.e. centrist or super liberal.

perry: So that gets to the real question. Would Democrats be marginally better off if AOC

and company were a little less prominent till December 2020?

sarahf: Yes, I think that’s the argument Pelosi and leadership are making. I just don’t think it’s particularly salient. But I also haven’t seen the attack ads yet, I suppose.

perry: My own, non-data judgement, is yes, Democrats would be slightly better off if AOC and her allies were less prominent in the run-up to the 2020 election. Why? Because having issues of race and identity (like immigration policy and four very liberal, female people of color) being central to the presidential election is hard for Democrats. They have become the party of people of color but most voters are white and this is especially true in key swing states (in particular, Michigan and Wisconsin). Also, Trump is likely to run a 2020 campaign about race and identity that raises the question of who should represent America–forcing voters to take sides.

Pelosi, I assume, does not want the 2020 election to be seen by the public as a battle between AOC’s vision of America (even if Biden is the Democratic nominee) and Trump’s vision of America. And I think she is right to be concerned about that. This is not a new challenge for Democrats. Hillary Clinton was probably not helped by the rise of Black Lives Matter preceding the 2016 election, and backlash to the civil rights movement arguably helped Richard Nixon win the 1972 election.

natesilver: I guess the counterargument, which folks were sorta alluding to above, is that Pelosi can push back against the Squad to show that actually she’s the “reasonable,” moderate one. I’m not sure I buy that counterargument, but it’s an argument.

julia_azari: YES, THE GALAXY BRAIN TAKE.

My read on this is that this stuff is always bubbling under the surface, also. Like you can’t indefinitely ignore race issues because they’re tricky politically.

natesilver: Democrats derive certain benefits from having a more diverse coalition, one of which is that the coalition is simply broader — more people identify as Democrats in this country than Republicans. It also entails certain costs, including tension among different parts of your constituency that can have racial undertones (or even overtones).

The hard part for Democrats right now is that nonwhite voters are significantly disempowered by the Electoral College, and especially by the Senate.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

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.”

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