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Would Elizabeth Warren Or Bernie Sanders Move To The Center Against Trump?

Several of Joe Biden’s top rivals in the 2020 Democratic primary are presenting themselves as more liberal on policy issues than the former vice president. But if Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris were to win the nomination, would they reposition themselves to appeal to more centrist voters in a general election?

This is an important question in the context of the Democratic primary. Some more centrist Democrats are worried that Sanders and Warren in particular are taking left-wing positions in the primary that will hurt them in the general election. So those Democrats might be reassured by the idea that these candidates would move right after the primary. Alternatively, some very liberal Democrats are worried that Harris and Warren aren’t truly committed to left-wing goals like Medicare-for-All. Is it likely that they would abandon their liberal stances after the primary?

If history is any indication, the Democratic candidates will move to the center, but not in the most obvious way. They won’t abandon core liberal policy stands. But they will both speak about themselves and their policy views in more moderate ways and choose a running mate aimed at appealing to voters who are not hardcore liberals.

How Recent Nominees Have Shifted From The Primary To The General Election

Let’s start with policy. Recent Democratic presidential nominees have not moved to the center on major policy issues in the general election. In 2008, Barack Obama did not retreat from high-profile liberal promises such as proposing the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq and a comprehensive plan to provide more Americans health insurance. In the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton stuck with a fairly unpopular stance on abortion that she took in the Democratic primary — the repeal of the Hyde Amendment that bars federal funding from being used for abortion services.

A paper written last year for the journal “American Politics Research” by scholars Brice Acree, Justin Gross, Noah Smith, Yanchuan Sim and Amber Boydstun studied this in a more systematic way and found the pattern of sticking with your core policy promises from the primary extended to recent Republican nominees as well.

Why aren’t the nominees flipping away from bold policy stances in the general election? First of all, a candidate often makes promises during a primary to appeal to particular constituencies. The candidate usually will need those same groups to be strongly behind him or her in the general election. (For example, Obama embraced universal health care during the 2008 primary in part to appeal to the leaders of major labor unions.) Also, flip-flopping on your core stances is likely to draw negative press coverage. Finally, recent Democratic nominees (Clinton, Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore) didn’t center their candidacies in the primary around the idea that they were the most liberal Democrat. So those four arguably didn’t take as many bold and potentially electorally risky stances as Warren and Sanders, who have made liberalism a centerpiece of their presidential runs.

But Democratic nominees in the past have made other concessions to the idea of “middle of the road” voters. The most prominent one has tended to be in their picks for vice president. The four most recent Democratic nominees all chose running mates whose role was in part to help the person at the top of the ticket appeal to more conservative voters.1 In all four cases, the vice-presidential candidate was to the right of the Democratic nominee as measured by roll call votes in Congress, according to a paper written last year by Northeastern Illinois University’s William Adler and FiveThirtyEight contributor and Marquette University political science professor Julia Azari.2 And each VP pick also had less measurable “moderate” calling cards:

I’m not suggesting that on policy issues there was a lot of daylight between Clinton and Kaine or Obama and Biden. (There wasn’t.) But American voters aren’t that well-versed in policy in the first place. Obama (black) and Clinton (female) have identities that are associated by voters with liberalism. One way to soften the perception that Clinton and Obama were very liberal was to pick a white guy as their running mates. (In fact, Kaine was on Obama’s short list for vice-president eight years before Clinton picked him.)

Clinton, Kerry and Obama, in particular, also made other choices — in terms of tone and messaging — to present themselves as more centrist in the general election. (This is admittedly more subjective and harder to measure.) For example, in the general election, Clinton emphasized the Republicans who endorsed her. Kerry made his military service a centerpiece of his general election campaign. Obama used the phrase “middle class” much more often during the general election, compared to the primary, according to Acree, Gross, Smith, Sim and Boydstun; he also invoked the concept of “universal health care” much less often in the general election, compared to the primary.

What Might Warren, Sanders Or Harris Do?

So what do these precedents tell us about how Harris, Sanders and Warren might act in a general election? First, we shouldn’t expect these candidates to truly back away from any of their signature policy ideas, such as the taxes on wealth proposed by Sanders and Warren, Sanders’s mass forgiveness of college debt or Harris and Sanders’s proposals to create Medicare-style health care options for basically every American. Breaking away from such high-profile ideas would leave them vulnerable to charges of flip-flopping and probably irritate their core supporters.3

Could they nibble at the edges? Sure. Perhaps Sanders tweaks his health care approach so at least some Americans can stay in their current plans. Maybe Warren releases some kind of middle-class tax cut to emphasize that she wants only to increase rates for the very rich.

But, like with past nominees, it will be easier for these candidates to present themselves as more moderate in a general election through shifts in tone and their vice-presidential picks rather than moving right on policy. If Harris or Warren is the Democratic nominee, I would expect either Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio (or both) will be on their short lists for vice-president. (Brown and Ryan are white men from the Midwest who aren’t known as super liberal.) Following this model, a natural running mate choice for Sanders would be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. (I doubt the Democratic ticket will be two men. So Whitmer fits the bill as a woman who is fairly moderate and from the Midwest.)

In a general election, you could see Warren downplaying her bold, liberal plans on every issue a bit and putting more emphasis on her Christianity, Oklahoma roots and bipartisan work in the Senate. Sanders, who has had to play up his ties to the Democratic Party in the primary, would likely go back to noting that he is officially an Independent who has some frustrations with both parties, just as a lot of voters do. Harris might downplay her more divisive stands, like her support of impeaching Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and opt for more Obama-style rhetoric about unifying the country across gender, racial and religious lines.

All that said, there are also a couple of reasons to think the Democratic nominee in 2020 might make less of an “etch-a-sketch” effort than past nominees. The previous Democratic presidential nominees were all in some ways following a kind of “median voter’ model, imagining that there was a set of voters whose views were basically in between the positions of the Democrats and the Republicans. But there is a lot of evidence that moderate, swing and independent voters aren’t particularly centrist, but hold a lot of different views, some of which are conservative, some of which are liberal.

So maybe Sanders or Warren, in a general election, keep their populism pretty amped up in an effort to woo voters who may swing between the two parties but would prefer an unabashed economic populist. Maybe Harris, instead of choosing a centrist white man as her running mate, picks Warren — or Warren chooses Harris — and they run a campaign with strongly liberal stands on issues of race and identity, hoping to win the election by energizing voters particularly turned off by Trump’s racialized and racist appeals.

And beyond whatever the winning primary candidate thinks is the best general election strategy, the Democratic Party — which is much more liberal and non-white than it used to be — may not allow them to move to the center all that much. So perhaps one of these three feels compelled to pick a Latino running mate to appeal to that growing bloc in the electorate, for example, rather than someone like Brown or Ryan.

Where does all that leave us? I think that Harris, Sanders and Warren are likely to reframe their candidacies in a general election to broaden their appeal. But I don’t expect that will mean that they take more moderate positions on issues, in the mold of Biden. Their approach is likely to be more subtle, which has advantages for Democrats (the party could get a decidedly liberal person elected president) but also disadvantages (voters might not notice those subtle shifts, and thus view those candidates as too far left and re-elect Trump.)

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  1. It’s not clear that these vice-presidential choices actually won their tickets more centrist voters, but we’re talking about the intent behind their selections.

  2. Interestingly, Republicans don’t take this approach. The last three GOP nominees all picked vice presidential nominees farther from the ideological middle than themselves, according to Adler and Azari. (John McCain selected Sarah Palin; Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan; Trump chose Mike Pence) The Adler-Azari paper was presented at last year’s American Political Science Association conference. It has not been published online and has not undergone the formal peer review process that it would before it was published in a political science journal.

  3. I know Harris recently backed away from supporting Sanders’s Medicare provision, opting to release her ownmore moderate version of the plan. But even that new proposal is far-reaching. And I think Harris would be sharply criticized by both the press and fellow Democrats if she backtracked a second time on health care — so I’m assuming she is comfortable taking her current stance to a general election.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.