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Can A ‘Moderate’ Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?

If you follow politics through cable news, or via Twitter, you might get the impression that the Democratic Party is dominated by voters who are almost exclusively coastal, liberal, secular, well-educated and relatively young. And it’s true that some of these groups are becoming more prominent — more Democrats than ever identify as liberal, for example.

But there still might be room for a “moderate” candidate to do well in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, maybe even win. Democrats overall are more conservative, more religious and less well-educated than I think is commonly believed. In other words, there remains a moderate wing of the Democratic Party — it just might not be a cohesive one.

You can define “moderate” in a bunch of different ways, but here are a few data points illustrating that anywhere from a quarter to half of Democratic voters defy the party stereotypes:

  • Gallup found that 47 percent of Democrats identify as either “moderate” (34 percent) or “conservative” (13 percent).1
  • In the 2016 Democratic primaries, at least a quarter of voters identified as “moderate” or “conservative” — as opposed to “liberal” or “very liberal” — in all 27 states where exit or entrance polls were conducted.
  • About a quarter of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election were white people without college degrees, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Another Pew poll found that 33 percent of those who identify as Democrats or lean toward the party are white people without college degrees.
  • From the same survey: Almost a third of Democrats are white Catholics (10 percent), white evangelicals (7 percent), or white mainline Protestants (12 percent).2
  • About a third of Democrats told Pew that they think that you have to believe in God to “be moral and have good values.”
  • In the same poll, a quarter of Democrats said they think barriers that make it harder for women to get ahead are “largely gone.”
  • About a quarter of Democrats overall and close to 40 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats told Pew they agree with the idea that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.”3
  • According to an analysis by Data for Progress, 28 percent of white Democrats say individuals’ willpower, not discrimination, is the main reason for racial inequality.
  • One in five Democrats think abortion should be illegal in most cases, per Pew.
  • Half of Democrats in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll want the new Democratic House majority to focus on protecting and improving the Affordable Care Act, compared to 38 percent who want the party to push for a Medicare-for-all provision that would offer all Americans government-backed health insurance.

So however you define “moderate” — I mixed ideological, identity-based, cultural and economic issues above intentionally, as “moderate” and “centrist” are squishy labels — a meaningful portion of the Democratic Party falls into that bucket.

Here’s the catch, however: It’s not totally clear if the party’s moderates can form a distinct coalition that would vote en masse for the same candidate in the primaries, as other groups in the electorate have in the recent past. (For example, black voters for Barack Obama in 2008 and for Clinton in 2016, or young people for Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.)

Most polls don’t release detailed breakdowns of Democrats who identify as moderate and conservative, so it’s a bit hard to describe this group and its views precisely. But I reached out to the Pew Research Center to get details on the 54 percent of Democrats overall who identified as moderate or conservative, based on an aggregation of their surveys in 2018, and non-liberal Democrats appear to be made up of four main groups:

  1. White voters without college degrees (30 percent).
  2. Black voters (22 percent).
  3. Latino voters (21 percent).4
  4. White voters with college degrees (16 percent).5

I think this will be a complicated bloc to unify around a single candidate. Why? Well, the obvious reason is the demographic differences here. Even if they share the same general ideology, black moderates in, say, Mississippi and white moderates in West Virginia may not be that much alike in their political preferences. In 2016, for example, moderate and conservative voters represented about half of the electorate in both states’ Democratic primaries, but they voted very differently — Sanders carried them 49 percent to 31 percent in West Virginia, and Clinton carried them 85-13 in Mississippi.

Secondly, these groups may define “moderate” differently. Black people, for example, vote overwhelmingly Democratic but are less supportive of abortion rights than are Democrats overall. In contrast, some prominent Democrats who identify themselves as centrist, like billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are strong supporters of abortion rights. And that divide isn’t just about race. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is generally considered a moderate Democrat because of his wariness about gun control legislation and abortion rights, while Bloomberg is a major advocate of gun control.

Third, showing affinity for one part of this coalition may be a de facto declaration that you are not aligned with another part of it. I don’t think it’s an accident that Clinton’s strong performance with black voters in 2016 coincided with a steep decline compared to her 2008 numbers in heavily white-working-class West Virginia. The political moves it takes to become the candidate that black voters support in a Democratic primary may make it impossible to also be the candidate backed by West Virginia Democrats.

Also, a significant number of anti-Trump Republicans may have become fiscally conservative Democrats since 2016, and those party switchers may participate in the Democratic primaries in 2020. It’s not clear that these new voters will align with the existing Democratic moderates either.

So who could appeal to all four demographic groups that make up the moderate and conservative Democrats? Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has suggested he occupies a centrist place in the electorate that neither party is appealing to. But I wonder, because of Schultz’s race and urban, educated background, if he really only reflects the values and ethos of the smallest bloc of Democratic moderates: whites with college degrees. Manchin of West Virginia could actually be a much better fit than Schultz for the biggest part of this coalition, whites without college degrees, since a high percentage of West Virginians fall into that category. Of course, Manchin has not demonstrated an ability to build support among black or Latino voters — West Virginia is more than 90 percent white.

But I wonder if I’m emphasizing ideology and specific policy stands a bit too much here. Maybe Democrats who call themselves moderate just don’t like the connotations of the term liberal, even if they share the values of liberal Democrats. So we should just be looking for a candidate with some ability to connect with black and Latino Democrats and white Democrats with and without college degrees, all at once.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, despite his age (76) and potential problems with the party’s left, might be the ideal candidate for this coalition.

Biden is fairly liberal. He pushed for the legalization of gay marriage before Obama took that position in 2012 and was recently lamenting “systemic racism.” But in a primary field where the other top candidates (Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, in particular) are running hard to the left on equality issues and economic issues, Biden is positioned to appeal to the center-left in both spheres. He has a ton of relationships with black and Latino activists and powerbrokers from his time in the Senate and as vice president under Obama. He talks about his Catholic faith consistently, and at times he has taken conservative stands on abortion rights. He comes from a state (Delaware) that is traditionally Democratic but not particularly progressive, so he might appeal to white working-class Democrats not that thrilled about the party’s more left-wing candidates.

Biden also has another potential advantage: name recognition. West Virginia’s Richard Ojeda launched a presidential campaign in November directly aimed at working-class voters, but he got little traction and dropped out last month. Maybe Ojeda’s failed campaign shows that this moderate coalition doesn’t exist, but I’m not sure that he was the best test case. Krystal Ball, who was an adviser to Ojeda during his brief run, told me that the campaign couldn’t see a path to victory in part because Ojeda was struggling to get media coverage.

But, Ball said, “because there is so much crowding on the left end of the spectrum, there is an opening,” for a candidate in Ojeda’s mold.

Moderate politics probably aren’t going to draw a lot of campaign donations in a field full of popular liberal candidates (it’s hard to imagine an army of small-dollar donors rallying behind Biden the way they did behind Sanders). But Biden doesn’t need a lot money to introduce himself to voters.

In fact, Biden’s best path to the Democratic nomination might be similar to the one Trump took to win the GOP race in 2016: appeal to the working-class voters in his party who are under-targeted by other candidates and not covered that much by the media. This is obviously much more complicated in a Democratic primary, because Biden would have to build this coalition across racial lines, whereas Trump’s coalition was largely white.

Other candidates could appeal to this group too, but pundits usually tout the wrong sorts of candidates for the wrong reasons — i.e. white, big-city, college-educated pundits may be overhyping Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as a candidate who can appeal to all moderate voters because Klobuchar kind of embodies the white, educated, moderate political style of many of these pundits. A successful candidate for the moderates in the Democratic Party needs to win over black and Latino moderates — who are nearly half of this bloc — and can’t just be a spokesperson for Never-Trump-Republicans-turned-Democrats. Klobuchar could appeal to this entire coalition. But so too could someone (Cory Booker, Mitch Landrieu, Beto O’Rourke, etc.) who makes breaking down the country’s ethnic, religious and racial divides a core part of his or her campaign message, or someone (Sherrod Brown, Sanders, Warren, etc.) who uses a class-based economic message to unite black and Latino voters and white voters without degrees.

“I want a Democrat who cares about and will act on climate change, immigration and criminal justice reform because they are real justice issues, not because they are convenient new weapons in the culture wars,” said Michael Wear, a self-described moderate Democrat who directed outreach to religious groups for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “And I want a Democrat who will at the very least respect religious freedom and our national disagreement around abortion.”6

I think the safe bet is that moderate Democrats really aren’t a cohesive bloc. Instead, I expect black voters, Latino voters, white voters with degrees and white voters without degrees to split their votes among various candidates. You could imagine, say, Harris winning black Democrats of all political philosophies but losing moderate whites without degrees. You could imagine Sanders winning moderate whites without degrees but not moderate blacks or Latinos. You get the idea.

But I’m watching this bloc closely anyway. There is a sizable chunk of Democratic voters who call themselves moderate or conservative, and in a potentially huge field of candidates, they’ll matter — whether they unify or splinter.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 draft: Episode 2


  1. 51 percent say they are liberal.

  2. Another 20 percent are black or Latino Christians.

  3. The majority of Democrats of all stripes think that “racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead.”

  4. According to the Pew data, 18 percent of Democratic moderates and conservatives are black people without college degrees, 18 percent are Latino people without degrees, 5 percent are black people with degrees, and 2 percent are Latino people with degrees.

  5. Another 11 percent either fell into another racial/ethnic group or did not share that information. So this 11 percent would include, for example, Asian-American Democrats who describe themselves as moderate.

  6. Wear named Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, neither of whom seems likely to run, as well as Biden, Klobuchar and Landrieu among the candidates he might favor. He also mentioned ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has already ruled himself out.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.