vision 2020

Will Progressive Democrats ‘Move to the Center’ When Facing Trump?

How steady would either of these amigos be in a general election campaign? Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. posed a question this week that might have chilled the bones of progressives while thrilling centrists. It’s one that is asked of presidential candidates from both parties if an approaching general election is perceived as highly competitive, as 2020’s is expected to be:

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?

It’s a question that in the not-too-distant past would have been answered affirmatively by most Democrats and some Republicans (the latter being more circumspect about arousing the suspicions of conservative ideologues forever trying to identify and purge RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only). No one would be as blatant as 2012 Mitt Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom:

[W]hen Mr. Fehrnstrom on Wednesday reached for a word to describe how Mr. Romney might pivot to the general election, the one that came tumbling from his mouth was “Etch A Sketch,” the children’s drawing toy in which nothing is ever permanent.

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom, 50, said on CNN, with a slight smirk that suggested he believed he was about to use a clever line. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Conservatives who thought most of their policy positions came down from the Founders, if not from God Almighty, were not amused, and it exacerbated Romney’s reputation for being an unprincipled opportunist. And it’s the sort of thing Democratic progressives might fear in an ideologically anodyne candidate like Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. In their struggle to challenge Elizabeth Warren’s progressive credentials, you can imagine Bernie Sanders supporters fanning fears that the Massachusetts senator might “move to the center” if nominated. She is, after all, a Democrat, not a Democratic Socialist, the self-identification that pretty much precludes any “move to the center” by Bernie if it involves changing policy positions (many of which he’s had for decades).

But as Bacon observes, a nomination winner’s efforts to expand her base of support heading into a general election can be accomplished in ways other than changing policy positions or adopting new ones designed to appeal to “centrists” or “swing voters.”

[L]ike 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.

They can also, I would add, emphasize a different mix of the positions, or biographical features, that they already possess to appeal to voters who aren’t in the party’s “base.” And that sometimes means forgetting about the increasingly dubious idea that swing voters are “centrist.” If you think about it for a minute, a party nominee might best emphasize his most popular policy ideas, which may be “centrist” but could just as easily be “progressive” by conventional terms; examples of the latter include free college, expanded Social Security benefits, wealth taxes, and nationalist trade policies. Indeed, a smart general-election strategy for a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren might be to choose policies and messages that rev up progressives but at the same time appeal to swing voters. Those do exist.

The base-energizing factor speaks to another issue of general-election strategy: Campaigns must calculate to what extent their winning strategy depends on mobilization as opposed to persuasion. A lot of progressives believe non-voters skew heavily in their direction, on the theory that under-voting demographic groups like millennials are disproportionately progressive, and/or haven’t viewed the two-party choice as sufficiently clear. So creating an ideologically polarized general-election atmosphere will boost turnout among both the partisan base and previous non-voters, without any “moving to the center” at all.

Now something Democrats may have to contend with is the very high probability that the Trump 2020 campaign and the GOP will campaign against the nominee as an infanticide-supporting, anti-American, business-hating socialist, forcing Democrats into the false choice of either implicitly confirming those characterizations or pushing off them in a way that may discourage the Democratic base. A GOP campaign of insane negativity and unprincipled smears would be the perfectly predictable Trump M.O., and it also could work, as Hillary Clinton’s overconfident 2016 campaign learned.

How different candidates plan to deal with that challenge is a legitimate issue for primary voters, along with their plans to deal with a still-powerful Republican Party if they win. Everything we know about Sanders and his supporters suggests that he intends to overwhelm Trump by mobilizing a hidden majority that’s been waiting to support a progressive “political revolution” all along. Warren and other left-bent candidates may be more strategically flexible. And Biden, of course, has hitched his wagon to the older idea of “moving to the center” as a way to persuade swing voters. Even if you think (as I do) that this is an outmoded way of thinking that sacrifices too much ideological turf, if a majority of Democratic primary voters think that way, it could lift the former veep to the nomination, if not the presidency.

Will Progressives ‘Move to the Center’ Versus Trump?