Planks First, Then Platform?

I suppose this post is a follow-up to this one from January, about the Democratic National Committee’s survey of party members. In line with the DNC’s cautious approach to political change, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias writes:

A new Marist poll testing the popularity of a bunch of progressive ideas leads to a slightly tedious truth: Some are popular and some are not popular, and there’s not much of a pattern determining which are which.

The latest progressive activist fad on immigration policy, changing unauthorized entry from a criminal to a civil offense, for example, is badly underwater. But the old progressive standby of offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents of the United States polls very well. Massive investment in clean energy polls very well, but taxing dirty energy is much less popular. Free college is in between.

Yglesias’s summarizes his recommendation in the title of his article: “Democrats should run on the popular progressive ideas, but not the unpopular ones.”

I’m pretty small-minded, inasmuch as I regard this sort of inconsistency to be decidedly hobgoblinesque. Arguably my doctrinaire intolerance is an inconsistency on my part, since in many other regards I’m more swayed by the pattern of empirical findings than by logical coherence. Yglesias promotes a pragmatic, moderately progressive political strategy based on the popularity data:

There’s just a bunch of stuff, some of which is popular and some of which isn’t. And to the extent that issues matter at all in politics — a modest, but non-zero extent according to most accounts — the smart thing is just to pick the popular stuff.

Maybe so, but first it’s worth looking at the Marist numbers more closely. Take the “Medicare for all” policy — a national program that would cover all Americans, eliminating private health insurance. 41% of Americans think Medicare for all  is a good idea, while 54% regard it as a bad idea — an underwater policy that the Democrats would be smart to set aside, at least for now. However, breaking out results based on political orientation, 64% of Democrats think that Medicare for all is a good idea, while only 14% of Republicans think so. Republicans aren’t going to switch their presidential vote based on this one issue, since according to this same poll 90% of Republicans think that Trump is doing a good job and 89% will definitely vote for his re-election. What about unaffiliated voters, who might be swayed one way or the other based on policy? In the Marist poll, 55% of self-reported moderates regard Medicare-for-all as a good idea, while 40% think it’s a bad idea. So should the Democratic strategists court the 55% of moderates who support universal healthcare — a policy strongly endorsed — or should they scrap this popular progressive plank in hopes of wooing the 40% of moderates who dislike this policy? If you’re going with the numbers, it would make more pragmatic sense to lean into the policy that’s more popular with the moderate swing voters — Medicare for all.

On the other had, if you ask whether Medicare should be made available for all who want it, keeping open the choice of private health insurance, support from moderates goes up from 55% to 91% — empirical support for Yglesias’s more moderate pragmatism. But on this issue of Medicare choice the Republicans are about equally split. What’s to keep the Republicans from endorsing Medicare as an option? They’d retain their base partisan support but maybe tip more moderates their way, or at least neutralize the pragmatically progressive policy of the Democrats.

The same pattern holds up on nearly every progressive policy addressed in the survey: moderates are quite closely aligned with Democrats in supporting these policies. The progressive lean among moderates holds true for free public college tuition and carbon tax — policies that Yglesias flagged as possibly too progressive for the average American voter to get behind. Two notable exceptions are decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 per month, but even the average Democrat regards those two progressive policies as bad ideas. The only two policies on which moderates disagree with Democrats are the elimination of the death penalty and reparations for slavery: a majority of Democrats think those are good ideas, while most moderates disagree.

The empirical evidence supports the idea that most moderates are leaning Democratic for the next election. Moderates agree with most of the progressive policies. Only 31% of moderates think that Trump is doing a good job, which is much more closely aligned to the nearly unanimous Democratic renunciation of Trump than to the Republicans’ continued adulation. 89% of Republicans say they will definitely vote for Trump’s re-election; among moderates, 64% say they will definitely vote against Trump.

So if you’re the Democratic brain trust, why wouldn’t you lean strongly into the progressive agenda this time around? Converge on a reasonably appealing candidate and give it your best shot.


11 thoughts on “Planks First, Then Platform?

  1. Delighted, after reading this, to see Biden infuriating Trump by being 11 or so points ahead in FOX News Poll (‘they used to be so great’, he said, what a fucking maniac), and also well ahead of Kamala Harris. I mean, she is bad news, and goes below-the-belt even though smart prosecutor–yeah, and she never quits prosecuting.

    When I read your post, I thought no Dem. had any charisma to speak of except for Warren’s braininess. That dame is smart. I like her the most, probably, but I’d have to believe she could beat Trump. Booker is nice, but not ready to be president. He was definitely a good mayor of Newark and is personally very brave–saved someone’s life from a burning house, and did this while he was Mayor. I loathe Sanders forever, and don’t see why Warren isn’t ahead of him. I do not see why she doesn’t see Pelosi’s reasoning to slowly move into this, so that I was extremely surprised to see that Dems are using this new phrase ‘impeachment investigation’, which Nadler makes clear is pretty much what ‘impeachment inquiry’ means, but maybe a bit less formal, and Pelosi signed off on his language.

    But so what, Clinton didn’t have charisma either, and maybe people aren’t looking for that as miuch. Some of us were spoiled back then and luxuriated in our finding Hillary suffocating.


  2. Today’s betting odds favor Harris as the most likely Dem nominee, followed by Biden, then Warren, then Buttigieg and Sanders. I keep thinking that Harris has the advantage of being a DC outsider, being a state’s attorney — I forget that she’s actually a sitting US Senator. But she’s like Obama in not having held that job for very long, so she’s not nearly as tainted as Biden and Sanders. Warren’s pretty new to the Senate as well, so she could also avoid guilt by association. Most of the recent winners have been outsiders: Trump, Obama, GWBush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter. The only exception is GHW, but he got only 1 term.

    When you look at the polls pitting Trump against various Dem candidates, the main differentiator is seems to be how well-known the Trump opponent is. Biden outpolls Trump 49 to 39, while Warren trails Trump 42 to 41. Against every opponent Trump gets between 39 and 42 percent, which is just about what his popularity rating is. The Dems need to boost the votes for whatever candidate they throw out there to top Trump’s 42 percent ceiling. Maybe by the time the election rolls around Warren will have gotten enough visibility to exceed that threshold.


  3. I think Americans are shifting the way they vote. For most of my life viewers have decided on candidates based upon whether they like the person and based on the individual issues that are important to them. But America is changing. The empire is in decline. The Bush-Cheney push to change the geopolitical map failed.

    There’s also a generational shift underway, and Millennials are starting to learn the hard truth that their future was mortgaged so that billionaires like Trump could get tax cuts. Etc.

    I have no idea what’s going to happen next but I think Americans will vote on big picture type issues next time around. And possibly well into the future. We will be voting, I think, to determine the nature of what America will be in the future, to chart our national destiny and determine our collective values.

    Who is best positioned for this? Progressives, by my reckoning. And Bernie has the cred in this regard. He’s built a movement, and movement politics seems to be what is energizing people. MAGA is a movement, cliche and tired as it is. It’s a vision for America. And it won in 2016 and could very well win again. Trump didn’t run on issues, he led a movement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve also been kicking around this whole thing about little-known candidates. Trump came out of nowhere to win — zero experience in government. But as you say, the same was true for Obama. He didn’t really have an extensive record in 2008.

    There seems to be a certain advantage to being an unknown. People can assume that you share their beliefs and values. They can assume that you will fight for them. MAGA maniacs believe that Trump is fighting for them but his single greatest legislative achievement is a massive tax cut for himself, the Trump family, and the rest of the 1%, a tax cut that put the nation in debt. But Obama disappointed as well, and in a very similar way. Rather than taking a firm hand to Wall Street, he let the bankers choose their own terms and have them a sweetheart deal.

    As a Bernie supporter I’m hoping that Americans will look for someone with integrity who has been consistent. But who knows?

    The times are pretty wacky and wild. There are so many variables.


  5. john, I’m not sure what you’re talking about with :”Today’s betting odds favor Harris as the most likely Dem nominee, followed by Biden, then Warren, then Buttigieg and Sanders.” Whose betting odds? I may not know what that term means, so what does this mean:

    Sure, you can do something called ‘today’s betting odds’, but how are such things different from ‘new national poll’ with Biden ‘bouncing back’? or ‘Harris’s Debate Bounce Is Fading” These are both from Thursday. Of course at this point it’s likely to go up and down and often, but what says ‘Harris most likely Dem’ and what says ‘Harris is in 4th place?


  6. Jonathan, what I see is that people tend to vote for President along party lines. Nine out of ten Republicans believe that Trump is doing a good job and will likely vote for his reelection. Democrats poll almost exactly the opposite on Trump. Did Trump pull his fans into the Republican camp while pushing those who don’t like him into the Democrat camp? Not likely. Most of the states that voted for Trump have over the past decades voted for the Republican candidate, whoever that happened to be. Same with the states that voted for H. Clinton: historically Democratic states. It’s still a pretty wide-open race among the top 4 or 5 Democratic challengers, but it’s almost certain that whichever candidate gets the nod will win the historically Democratic states while losing the historically Republican states.

    In 2016 the election hinged on a few swing states; that’ll almost surely be the case again in 2020. Will they swing based on candidate personality, or on political platform? Maybe neither. Big cities vote Democrat; rural and small town vote Republican; suburbanites aren’t as clear-cut. Colorado has tipped Democratic after having been historically Republican in presidential elections. Why? I think it’s because it’s become a more urbanized place. North Carolina is drifting toward the Democratic camp for President; it too has gotten increasingly urbanized. No doubt it’s a combination of various factors, but demographics is certainly in the mix as an important swing factor.

    Here’s some support for the demographic variable. Scrolling up to page 3 on the Marist poll results that I linked in my post, you’ll find a more detailed breakdown on the Trump approval ratings. Here’s the results based on “area description” of where respondents live:
    – big city, 38% approve of the job Trump is doing
    – small city, 41%
    – suburban, 41%
    – small town, 46%
    – rural, 56%

    On that same page you’ll find that 73% of white evangelical Christians approve of Trump.

    Are the Millennials shifting the way people think about politics? I don’t know. The poll results show that:
    – 35% of GenZ-Millennials approve of Trump
    – 55% of GenXers
    – 45% of Boomers
    – 41% of Silent-Greatest (age >75)

    So you could say that the youngest and the oldest voting demographics clump together in the progressive direction, while the middle-agers clump conservative. Is this a lifespan thing: once you’re established on your career path and raising a family you get more conservative, but when you retire and the kids leave home you get more liberal? Or is it a generational thing, where coming of age in a particular time in the country’s history sets your voting patterns across your lifetime? So, e.g., the over-75 generation came of age during the FDR era, and that sort of progressivism may have stayed with them across the decades. There might be a combination of age and area at work here as well — urbanites tend on average to be younger than ruralites.

    Don’t the Bernie supporters tend to split out this way — an alliance of Millennials and oldsters, mostly from big cities? Surely there’s data out there somewhere.


  7. Patrick, re: the betting odds… The polls typically ask respondents to say who they’d vote for if the primary were held today. In the polls Biden holds a strong lead over the other Dem candidates. But then there are sites like this one, where you can bet money on who you think will win the Democratic nomination. Right now the odds for Harris are +225 — if you bet $100 on Harris and she wins, then you get your money back plus $225. These odds move around based on the percentage of bettors who lay their money down at the posted odds: the more bettors, the lower the odds and the lower the payoff it your horse crosses the finish line first. Fewer people have been betting on Biden, so his odds have sunk from +200 in February to +375 now — bet $100 on him and you get your money back plus $375 if he wins: the bigger payoff means that Biden is more of an underdog than Harris. Warren is up to 3rd place at +450, while Buttigieg is 4th at +550. Sanders has dropped down to +650, in 5th place.

    It’s argued that when people have to lay their money down on their choices, then those choices are more serious — and more likely to be accurate — than if you merely ask their opinion in a poll without their having any skin in the game. I’ve seen some evidence supporting this contention. On the other hand, in the run-up to 2016 the voting odds were tilted decisively toward Clinton, whereas the polls had Trump and Clinton just about neck and neck. Two complementary sources of speculation about the future.


  8. Here’s a new Vox article summarizing results of a survey of Democrats that focuses on candidate likability. Respondents deemed Warren and Harris as the most likable of the front-runners. Harris narrowly edged out Warren in terms of how “excited” respondents were about the candidates, while Warren clearly won for favorability. Who would respondents most like to hang out with as a friend? Warren, then Buttigieg. Looking at the details of the survey itself, respondents thought that Warren was the candidate who best represented their political views, followed by Sanders — results that reinforce findings from the Marist survey showing a pretty strong lean toward the progressive agenda.


  9. I wouldn’t like to hang out with any of them as a friend, even the ones I like. I might like to meet Elizabeth Warren, shake her hand, same with some other politicians like Pelosi and even Nadler. Maybe Booker. Mayor Pete is nice, but doesn’t excite me like he does others. I wouldn’t want to shake hands with Bernie, but nor would I want to converse with Biden. They’re all too busy politicking, and they shake hands just for votes, which is all right. I definitely like Warren, but I’d much rather meet Deneuve, even talk to her. I already did talk to Didion and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It looks like the “hang out with as a friend” question was a forced choice: which one candidate would you most want to hang out with? The question didn’t discriminate much between the candidates: Warren won with 13% of respondents picking her, but even Biden, who came in 5th on this question, got 10% — not much different from the winner. I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them either.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s