Elizabeth Warren

The Democratic Debates Will Alienate Democratic Voters

The progressive push to the left among presidential candidates will alienate most Democrats and independents, helping Donald Trump to a second term.


This week's Democratic debates have gone a long way toward betraying the expressed interests of Democratic Party voters. That's because they were a showcase for, in the words of countless news outlets, "progressives vs. moderates," with the progressives always holding the moral and ethical high ground, despite the fact that the majority of Democratic voters say they prefer far more moderate policies.

Pity poor former Rep. John Delaney (D–Md.) for pointing out, correctly, that Sens. Elizabeth Warren's (D–Mass.) and Bernie Sanders' (D–Vt.) versions of Medicare for All comprise an "anti-private sector strategy" built on "impossible promises" and "fairy-tale economics," including the end of non-government medical care.

Sure, Medicare for All might be a political suicide mission but Warren, to great applause in the debate and after, shot back:

I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for.

That sort of back-and-forth sums up the tenor of the debates. Delaney is largely correct in saying Medicare for All plans that prohibit private insurance will be too expensive to implement. Rep. Tim Ryan (D–Ohio) is also correct that such plans will be attacked by union members who stand to lose gold-plated private health insurance their leadership fought hard to win. But progressives are the crazy, idealistic dreamers who aren't going to sit around and be hemmed in by basic laws of political physics. Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), Sanders, Warren, and others simply exclaim, "You just pay for it."

The problem for the Democrats is pretty simple: Contrary to media narratives and debate-stage dynamics, very few members of the party are actually progressive. As CNN analyst Harry Enten writes,

Moderates and conservatives make up about 50% of all Democrats. In the 2018 midterms, the exit polls found that moderates and conservatives made up 54% of those who voted Democratic. Pew similarly put moderate and conservative Democrats as 54% of all self-identified Democrats and independents who lean Democratic voters in 2018. Gallup's 2018 figures had moderates as 47% of all adults who self-identified as Democrats.

And what about Democrats who self-identify as liberal? Enten continues:

While liberals make up about 50% of Democrats, many of them are only "somewhat liberal." In a Quinnipiac University poll taken last month, people who identified as "very liberal" were only 19% of all Democrats and independents who leaned Democratic. Very liberals made up the same 19% of those who said they were voting Democratic in Suffolk University's final 2018 pre-election poll. The 2016 primary exit polls discovered that about 25% of Democratic primary voters called themselves very liberal.

Put another way: the moderate/conservative wing of the Democratic Party likely still makes up at least 2 times as much of the party's voters than the very liberal flank.

That helps explain surveys finding that 54 percent of Democrats want a more moderate party while just 41 percent want one that is more liberal. To the extent that Democratic presidential candidates tack further and further to the left—and most of them are—they will only be alienating the rank and file of their own party, not to mention independents and other voters who still predominantly identify as conservative or moderate. That's a clear advantage for President Donald Trump, who can brag about a strong economy while kicking dirt over his stubbornly low approval ratings and racist tweets.

For those of us who aren't members of the Democratic Party, there's a bigger issue still: The framing of the current Democratic race as between progressives and moderates is deeply misleading when it comes to accurately describing the presidential hopefuls, all of whom are calling for massive expansions in the size, scope, and spending of government. In the first debate of this week, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg made a plea for pragmatic solutions that aren't discussed in ideological terms:

It's time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. Look, if it's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. So let's just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.

Along with characters such as Delaney and former Vice President Joe Biden, Buttigieg is considered a moderate because he has criticized identity politics and "free college for all" plans. Yet he also backs national service, packing the Supreme Court with extra justices, doubling the number of unionized workers in the gig economy, and pushing broad new gun control laws. That's no more moderate than Joe Biden's calls to massively expand Obamacare (it's worth remembering, too, that Barack Obama was nobody's idea of a tightwad when it came to spending).

The conventional wisdom is that candidates take extreme positions in primaries to appeal to the activists who dominate such proceedings. Then, the candidates move to the center for the general election. But sometimes there's no coming back from the fringes. At this early stage of the Democratic presidential race, the majority of candidates are already way, way out there, and there are plenty of activists and strategists who aim to keep them well beyond anything resembling the center. But the net effect of Dems embracing causes such as the elimination of private health insurance, taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants, a Green New Deal that aims to radically transform the U.S. economy in a few years' time, and reparations for both African Americans and gay couples may well be to make Donald Trump and Republicans seem less extreme when it comes to their own nutjob positions.


NEXT: Debate Democrats Sure Do Love Threatening Their Foes

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  1. Clearly people of a certain political mindset are incapable of learning lessons. Every time they lose there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth and never a moment spent reflecting on what might have gone wrong. Everything bad is always somebody else’s fault and never their own. They’re too busy canceling everyone who doesn’t agree with them to spend time on figuring out why they don’t have any friends left.

    1. Someone actually wrote a book on the very subject; I think she called it “What Happened”

  2. I think the calculation here is that they go for broke and simply demand everything they want all at once. 2012 – and for that matter 2016 from the Rep point of view – showed that you don’t just pile up votes by being a squishy middle-of-the roader. You go radical, engage your voters and bring them to the polls, and don’t try to fake being moderate. Plus they have the Kirklands to egg them on, suggesting that it’s simply a question of outvoting the declining, dying-off white Southern male religious dudes who are being superseded.

    1. I think it’s more like a generational shift in very slo-mo. The only real issue for Dems in 2020 is beat Trump but if that doesn’t work then they’ve accomplished nothing if all they do is make the election about personality. Even if it does work, that doesn’t create a mandate. And while the older boomers are maintaining hold on power, the next Dem generation cares about very different issues. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the radicalism is being expressed by two of the oldest candidates (channeling the 60’s when they too were young) as is the let’s not rock the boat much and BTW get off my lawn.

      It’s possible the primaries will end up leaving two of the three old people standing. But I doubt it. The positions/policies/presentation will morph as others get name recognition. 2018 was the first election where X/Mill/Z (slightly) outvoted boomer/silent.

  3. Plenty of time to run to the center for the general election. And plenty of cover then from journalists. They just now have to appeal the the primary voters likely to get fired up enough to vote then.

    1. And they can most certainly count on the MSM to pull out the stops to defeat Trump BAMN. Aren’t you the one who predicted gas lighting on a major scale?

    2. I have to disagree. Trump has already put out ads that showed every Democratic candidate raising their hands to give free healthcare to people illegally in this country.

      This isn’t the 90s. Everyone on the planet has access to video archives and video editing technology. Old statements cannot be forgotten like when we were children. There are too many positions being discussed in too far an extreme. Boolean positions they cannot walk back without being called out on lies.

  4. I suspect they’ll all unify behind one candidate after Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia will have weighed in by then, and the money will go to those who lead in the polls at the expense of those who fail.

    I’d expect Harris to do well in California, and neither Sanders nor Warren is likely to sweep the other out of New England. They split support where they need it most. Contrary to billing, I’d expect other candidates accusing her of being a closeted law and order type to play in well in Florida and Texas.

    The campaign just isn’t about the voters at this point. The debates aren’t really for the public’s consumption. The candidates are playing to activists and donors, trying to show that they’re the one who deserves all the volunteer time and donations.

    It may be instructive to remember what it was like the last time the contest was this wide open for any given Democrat, which was the 2008 primary when Obama won. Playing to left didn’t hurt Obama with registered Democrats early in the cycle. It wasn’t until swing voters really started to pay attention that it became important. At that point, Obama promised Hillary Clinton the job of Secretary of State in exchange for her dropping out of the contest early–so that he could move to the center and not alienate swing voters. That’s when he could really start hammering on his issues like, “Marriage is between a man and a woman”.

    It’ll be the same thing now. Early in the cycle, Democrat donors are interested in who can play well to the cameras. Unions want to know which candidates they should lend their volunteers for grass roots work on the ground and organizing. That’s where we are now. Later in the cycle, they don’t care if the candidates sound like conservative Republicans on various issues–witness LGBTQI+ activists volunteering for the Obama campaign in 2008, even as he was sounding like a Baptist minister on gay marriage. Once it comes time of the nominees to start thinking about swing voters, the Democrats won’t flinch. They don’t believe what their candidates say. Only Republicans expect you to say what you mean and mean it.

    1. I remember candidate Obama as being far more moderate than President Obama.

      1. Trying to solve healthcare by mandating health insurance is like trying to solve homelessness by mandating housing.

    2. “…the contest was this wide open for any given Democrat, which was the 2008 primary when Obama won”

      I thought that one was supposed to be her first “turn;” otherwise I think you are dead on. They will not flinch, and the catamite MSM will cooperative to defeat Trump any way they possibly can.

      At this point Biden just has to sleep through the process and try not to say anything super stupendously stupid.

      1. So it’s about 50/50?

  5. They still don’t understand how a peasant like Trump could beat the most qualified candidate in the history of the earth, so they blame it on white supremacist deplorables. Just as Obama was the best gun salesman ever, so are these clowns the best Trump campaigners ever.

  6. Moderates and conservatives make up about 50% of all Democrats.

    Zell Miller died last year, there are no more conservative Democrats. Unless you’re talking “comparatively speaking”, like “the sanest inmate in the insane asylum” or “healthiest corpse in the cemetery” or “friendliest mass murderer on Death Row”. In which case the conservative Democrats are still pretty damn pink.

    1. Zell Miller died last year

      In a duel?

    2. Don’t be stupid.

      There are plenty of conservative democrats. People who are Democratic due to racial or traditional reasons, or people who just think the Republicans are too pro-corporate. The classical liberal type. However, they are being more and more isolated by the front-line Democratic party.

      1. Truthfully I suspect a lot of us left leaning classical liberals will be moving back to the Libertarian party. They just need a better national candidate.

        There is simply no room for us with the Democrats anymore.

  7. Trump’s racist tweets? Like this one?

    “The fact of that matter is that America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. But anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you’re in a wealthy nation. You would think that you were in a Third World country.”

    Wait- that was Bernie. Nevermind.

    1. Pretty good article except for that line. Nick disappointed me there. Most of his tweets have a bad tenor, but calling them flat out racist is poor journalism.

      1. If you’re white and not filled with shame, you are racist. According to the new woke, he is correct.

        1. White Guilt NOW!

      2. “except for that line. Nick disappointed me there.”

        Even after all these years, Nick still has to earn those Georgetown cocktail party invites.

  8. Wait.
    Wrong headline.
    It should read, “The Democratic Debates Will Alienate All Sane Voters.”
    That’s better.

  9. Democrats are going to vote Democrat, no matter what anyone is saying now. It will be long forgotten by election day.

    1. This 100%. It’s so simple. Dems vote Dem. Reps vote Rep. Indies don’t vote once the ads go negative. But the ads going negative is what at the margin is the GOTV for the DeRps.

    2. Heard of Reagan Democrats or Trump Democrats? The parties (and independents who lean one way or the other) are so evenly matched picking off a few percentage points of your opponents party is enough to win. Also, if disillusioned, it is possible more moderate/conservative Democratic voters (they still do exist to a degree) will stay home or vote for down ballot elections (or third party protest votes).

  10. Any attempt during the general election to quote any of the crazy shit the Democrat said during the primaries will be a case of “conservatives pouncing on out-of-context quotes.”

    There’s no need for a memory hole if you just don’t have the time and inclination to double-check the talking points. The information can be out there but ignored.

    1. Unless the quote comes from Gabbard. Then Russia was somehow involved. I saw a bunch of twitter comments saying Russia hacking was somehow behind her increase in search rankings on Google

  11. Zombie-Mondale may as well be the nomination.

  12. Is it just me or does that photo look like a promo for Madam Tussauds wax museum?

    1. It *was* just you, but after you mentioned it I couldn’t unsee it.

    2. I think the wax versions would be more lifelike

  13. I am always surprised by conservatives and libertarians suggesting a Democratic nominee should be more like, well like Jeb Bush. In November 2020 they will have to make the choice of two bad options. The Trumpites and the Democrates get to vote for the person they like and support. Conservatives and Libertarians will have to suck it up and live with the decision for the next four years. But on the bright side, maybe their candidate will show up in 2024. You know Jeb Bush 2024.

  14. I guess that the Progs are relying on the fact that, for most of their core constituency, young, unmarried people, have no clue what Medicare actually is. If they did, the whole idea of allowing everyone to “buy in” to Medicare, thereby making everyone’s lives great have no clue what that means. Do they realize that Medicare is predicated on most recipients paying a not inconsequential amount into the system for 40 years? This gives you the right at 65, to pay a minimum of $1600/year for what is effectively a catastrophic coverage plan, leaving you responsible for 20% of what could be astronomical costs of major medical. In order to have a plan anything as comprehensive as what is typical for most workers, and you are not covered through a union plan, you need to pay for a medigap plan. Then a drug plan.
    So, in the end, you end up getting a pretty good (not great) insurance policy for about 1/3 of what it cost at 64. Of course, this is from the viewpoint of someone who always paid 100% of my health costs. Those who think they are paying only about half of health insurance costs through the mirage of an employer paying the other half may be in for a shock when end up still paying quite a bit compared to when they worked.
    And even with all this, its still not enough. It is virtually certain that Medicare recipient costs will increase, especially among those who own stuff.

    1. “Do they realize that Medicare is predicated on most recipients paying a not inconsequential amount into the system for 40 years? “

      Medicare is also predicated on having a private insurance system to overbill to make up for what Medicare doesn’t pay. Once that’s gone, where’s that money going to come from?

      1. And there is also the system of paying for diagnostic and treatment codes. So something with a certain code gets $65.

        But let’s say the doctor needed $135 for that visit to turn a profit. What to do?

        Well, here’s what the ones who take medicare patients do: They learn how to break things up properly so they get paid. So they’ll turn one visit into 3. And add in a couple of extra codes to make sure they get paid.

        The whole exercise is kinda silly when you understand basic economics. You can’t just mandate that people charge less than what the fair market rate would be. Not for long anyway. One way or another, they are going to work around the system. Usually you end up paying more in the end.

        So….. wonder why healthcare costs have exploded as regulation and subsidies have exploded? Well, wonder no more.

        1. And when everyone sees the actual costs who will be blamed? Of course the greedy doctors trying to earn a living will be blamed because obviously they do not care about the poor,the country, POC, etc. The fact that they want a little payback for their schooling and expertise,regardless of the schooling was paid for by the tax payer, they’ll be the scapegoat until they all quit or the Fed guys with guns show up.

        2. So this. I think it was Warren who was saying the increase in coding etc was because of private insurance, when in fact it is usually to deal with Medicare and Medicaid requirements.

    2. …especially among those who own stuff.

      You’ve tiptoed up to a truth that is rarely spoken: the primary purpose of medical insurance is not to pay for medical care. It’s to protect your property from being lost to medical expenses.

  15. Apparently, I have been living under a rock. So many people take it as an article of faith that Trump is a racist and writes racist tweets. Could someone please share some examples? I don’t think calling The Squad idiots because they are idiots who happen to be female POCs counts, for example. If any criticism of such people is automatically “racist”, then either such people are completely immune to criticism or the word had no meaning at all.

    1. Yeah… that’s exactly what a racist would say.


      1. Bingo.

        That’s how the character assassination works. Anyone who questions whether the Kulaks should be murdered is instantly declared a Kulak.

    2. Is there a rock next to you for sale? Depending on who wins in 2020 I might want to become your neighbor.

    3. It worked for Obama so they will continue to beat that drum. If I were Trump’s advisor I would schedule multiple speeches in minority neighborhoods so he can deliver the message of “how have the Democrats helped you?”

  16. So…

    I was pondering what the establishment/media strategy would be post-debate. They really pushed Sanders and especially Warren. The networks I was watching asked questions like “who will join those two on the stage?”

    And they really pushed Harris after the last debate, while hammering Biden for a while, then rehabilitating him.

    Then this morning I watched NBC report on the debate. The one defining moment was Gabbard calling out Harris on her record of proprietorial abuse. While “Biden hits back” got coverage and a clip or two, and the healthcare debate got clips…. Gabbards moment was covered with the sentence “Harris was attacked on her record as a prosecutor” and immediately pivoted to “She responded with a vigorous defense of her record” and a clip of her talking about being proud of her work as a prosecutor. Gabbard didn’t get any air time at all.

    So today they start covering the next debate. New rules, and a big cut is coming. Right now only 7 will qualify. Yang should be in, but the DNC is trying to exclude him. Gabbard only has 1 poll to her name, and not enough donors. Looks like they don’t want to risk giving her air time and letting another person onto the stage.

    It seems like they really want this thing cut down to Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris really quick.

    1. That’s a repeat of 2016. I’ll wake up at 2 am to hear a concession speech and immediately be glad one side lost only to sadly realize that means the other side won. Where’s Richard Pryor when you need him?

  17. The progressive push to the left among presidential candidates will alienate most Democrats and independents, helping Donald Trump to a second term.

    Strychnine /Cyanide 2020
    choose your poison™

  18. From Fonzie’s keyboard to God’s inbox

  19. Kind of ironic, a libertarian pointing out that candidates can’t win by proposing radical change.

  20. “That’s a clear advantage for President Donald Trump, who can brag about a strong economy while kicking dirt over his stubbornly low approval ratings and racist tweets.”

    Not enough invites to the right cocktail parties?

    Trump is racist… SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

    Grow the fuck up.

  21. “But the net effect of Dems embracing causes such as the elimination of private health insurance, taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants, a Green New Deal that aims to radically transform the U.S. economy in a few years’ time, and reparations for both African Americans and gay couples may well be to make Donald Trump and Republicans seem less extreme when it comes to their own nutjob positions.”

    A bunch of very specific insane bullshit > Orange Man Bad

    1. But Nick! Have you forgotten Open Borders Uber Alles? It’s your *core principle*!

      What’s a little socialism, or a lot, if it still means you get to destroy self government and usher in the rule of the Globalists?

      In the 21st century, libertarians are going to have make common cause with the globalists of all parties, with the people whose core value is the right of individuals to move freely around the planet.

  22. The problem is Democrats have lost touch with the group that kept them in power for decades, white working class voters. The party is beholden to the rich elites in the NE and on the west coast which is why for all practical purposes, it is a regional party. Progressives believe they are smarter, morally superior and more “civilized” those in other parts of the country, especially the red state middle. They see all those who were once ‘traditional democrats” as beneath them and undeserving of any consideration or acknowledgment. The arrogance of the progressive wing will in the end be the downfall of the Democrat party because they see anyone with a different opinion as someone who must be silenced. The irony is the very group so quick to label others as fascist, are themselves the actual fascists. Ever wonder why progressives always use the term “racist” and never use bigot? Because bigotry is prejudice beyond just race and they are all bigots on many different levels.

    1. Not a problem if you import enough big government voters.

  23. What so many people do not understand in there are many of us who wish the President would stop the name calling, the tweeting and all the other petty nonsense, but his policies and actions are 1000x better than anything the Dems have proposed in the past or present. No one who is honest will try to argue the economy is not growing far beyond anything Obama dreamed. I love it when Democrats attempt to give Obama credit when in 2016 he said we had to accept 2% growth as the “new normal” because that was the best he was able to achieve in 8 years.

    1. Those former and soon for be former Republicans objecting to Trump’s tweets would have been called racist by Hillary, apologized for being born White, and Lost Nobly to her in 2016.

      Saying the unsayable is why Trump won.

  24. A dose of reality. Trump is the most libertarian candidate that can possibly be elected in 2020. At least we will get mostly good judicial appointments, less regulation and no tax increases.
    After that it sucks but look at the alternative. I voted for Gary Johnson last time in spite of the horrible choice of Weld as his running mate. Amash will get even less of the vote and has less influence than he did as a member of the house.

  25. The progressive push to the left among presidential candidates will alienate most Democrats and independents, helping Donald Trump to a second term.

    Yes. That’s because the Democrats have become the party of socialism and authoritarianism, while Trump is merely a moderate like Bill Clinton with bad manners and a somewhat lower rate of serial harassment.

    But TDS is so rampant at Reason that in the headline, Gillespie bemoans the fact that Democrats can’t sufficiently hide their authoritarianism to trick voters into voting for them, followed by an article filled with truisms and platitudes.

    That helps explain surveys finding that 54 percent of Democrats want a more moderate party while just 41 percent want one that is more liberal.

    Perhaps a libertarian magazine should have at least the decency to stop using self-selected Democratic propaganda terms like “liberal”; mainstream Democrats are progressive, and the more left leaning group of the Democrats is socialist and neo-Marxist. Progressivism, socialism, and neo-Marxism are intrinsically anti-liberal.

    1. Winner.

      Actual “liberals” are on the Right now, and just don’t know it yet. Free speech, individual rights, rule of law, self government, private property. The rest of the Left has abandoned them all, along with the liberals.

      “Liberals get the bullet too”.

      Welcome to the Kulaks, Liberals!

  26. The progressive push to the left among Reason writers will alienate most libertarians, but it doesn’t matter because they’re united with the Koch’s on Open Borders Uber Alles.

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