Two Democrats are running for statewide office in a pro-Trump state this fall. One is a white, 18-year incumbent, with a more conservative voting record than 93 percent of congressional Democrats. He proudly identifies as a centrist, opposes Medicare for All, hates the estate tax, and boasts strong financial support from the real-estate, telecom, and health-care industries.
The other is the African-American mayor of a small, working-class city. He proudly touts the endorsement of the nation’s most prominent Democratic Socialist, calls for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), supports socialized medicine, centers his campaign on a pledge to raise the top corporate tax rate by 36 percent, and was massively out-fundraised by his top primary rivals.
In the first week of September, which one has a better chance of victory, according to the polls?
If you posed this question to 100 Democratic consultants a few months ago, it’s likely that every single one would have been wrong: In the last five polls of the Florida Senate race, consummate centrist Bill Nelson is trailing tea-party governor Rick Scott by an average of 2 percent; in the first three polls of the Florida gubernatorial election — including one from the Republican-leaning firm Gravis — Tallahassee mayor (and socialist fellow-traveler) Andrew Gillum leads Republican congressman Ron DeSantis by a little over 2.5 percent.
Now, these poll results come with a cornucopia of caveats. Rick Scott has better name recognition, a slightly more “moderate” reputation, and far deeper pockets than DeSantis does. Gillum’s lead and Nelson’s deficit are both within the margin of error. And most of the Florida electorate has only known Gillum for a matter of days. There is no (intellectually honest) basis for asserting that Gillum is a stronger statewide candidate than Nelson is at this juncture.
But there’s no basis for asserting the opposite, either. And if electoral politics worked the way that mainstream pundits and Democratic operatives have long insisted, then Nelson would be outpolling Gillum by double digits. After all, as Mark Penn reminded Democrats last year, three-quarters of American voters identify as “moderate” or “conservative” — and Florida is even more right-wing than the nation as a whole. Thus, conventional wisdom would have held that a pro-tax, anti-ICE, proto-socialist candidate would lose swing voters in a Trump state by landslide margins, even when pitted against an unusually right-wing Republican.
And yet, a recent Quinnipiac University poll finds Gillum winning Florida’s independent voters by a 55 to 42 percent margin — with 90 percent of all respondents telling the pollster that they will not change their minds before Election Day.
And Gillum isn’t the only left-wing Democrat beating the spread in Trump country this year. In 2016, Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in Texas by nine percentage points. As of this writing, Beto O’Rourke — a progressive congressman who supports decriminalizing marijuana, single-payer health care, and African-American football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence — trails Senator Ted Cruz by just 4.4 percent in RealClearPolitics’s poll of polls. And Civiq’s state-of-the-art, online tracking poll suggests the race is dead-even.
Meanwhile, the most recent poll of Georgia’s governors race showed Stacey Abrams — a proud progressive vying to be the first African-American woman governor of a U.S. state — tied with Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Certainly, all of these progressive candidates are benefiting from an unusually favorable midterm environment. But not all Democratic candidates are deriving an equal benefit from their base’s enthusiasm. And there’s some evidence that left-wing, nonwhite candidates have a unique capacity to mobilize the grassroots: Andrew Gillum’s surprise primary victory was powered by young and/or African-American voters — the kind who have historically sat out midterm elections. It’s conceivable that in racially diverse, “magenta” states across the American South and West, Democrats that target young, nonwhite voters will prove more competitive than those who claim the mantle of mushy moderation.
At the same time, as Gillum’s early strength with independents suggests, the notion that Democrats must choose between targeting base voters with left-wing appeals — and aiming to lure a critical mass of swing voters out of the GOP’s big tent — rests on a shaky foundation. In truth, most voters do not have strong ideologies of any kind, and have highly malleable views on most policy questions. There’s little empirical basis to support the presumption that a Democrat who supports universal health care and raising taxes on the rich will be less appealing to voters than one who merely wishes to expand Medicaid and keep top marginal tax rates where they are.
Historically, Democrats have tended to derive some fundraising benefits from policy moderation. But even that appears to be changing. From a purely financial perspective, Beto O’Rourke’s decision to forgo corporate PAC money looks like a wise one: By signaling his independence from big money, the congressman won access to a massive pool of funding from small-dollar donors. Similarly, Andrew Gillum’s status as anti-corporate underdog helped him secure $2 million in campaign funds during the first 48 hours after his primary victory. More broadly, the combination of these small-donor armies with class traitor megadonors like George Soros and Tom Steyer make it possible for progressive Democrats to compete in some of the country’s most expensive media markets without crawling hat-in-hand to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or other well-heeled corporate interests.
It’s quite possible (perhaps, even likely) that O’Rourke, Abrams, and Gillum will go down to defeat this fall. But if they manage to keep those races close, they’ll establish a new model of how Democrats can compete in light-red states; and if they find a way to win, progressivism will be the new pragmatism.