Democratic Leaders Aren’t Really Pragmatists–They Just Prefer Moderates

This year we have seen conflicts in the Democratic Party as the party establishment has intervened in primary races to back more moderate or conservative candidates over more progressive candidates. As I have noted previously, the arguments that more moderate candidates are more electable have not held up, with this view being a major reason why Democrats have lost control of the White House, both Houses of Congress, and around one thousand seats in state legislatures.

With increased polarization, the number of persuadable voters has decreased, and elections are frequently won based upon a party’s ability to motivate its potential voters to turn out to vote. Despite growing evidence that their strategy does not work, the Democratic establishment remains resistant to change. The Intercept recently reviewed evidence that this might be because party leaders simply prefer moderates. They reviewed data showing that, even in safe races, party leaders preferred more moderate candidates:

A paper in this month’s edition of the peer-reviewed Legislative Studies Quarterly analyzes a decade’s worth of federal elections, finding that party organizations boost moderate candidates across the board, whether the general election is expected to be competitive or a long shot. In other words, party support for moderates does not appear to be strategic, but sincere. “They’re not doing this to have a better shot at winning elections,” said the paper’s author Hans Hassell, assistant professor of politics at Cornell College in Iowa.

The evidence points more to the conclusion that party elites “have strong incentives to prefer loyalists who can be trusted to implement its preferred policies after the nomination,” Hassell writes.

The study not only breaks with other political science findings, but decades of rhetoric from party leaders. It’s obvious from the most casual survey of primary elections that parties support moderates, but the races that observers tend to watch closely are competitive contests in swing states, so it stands to reason that a moderate in such a district may indeed be the smarter strategic play. Indeed, in a series of high-profile battles with progressive activists, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has consistently positioned itself as being pragmatic, willing to bend on its progressive principles if doing so can lead to victory.

Hassell’s work expanded the field of vision, looking at races in which the Democratic nominee is likely to cruise to victory. The full scope of the research indicates that party leaders are actually committed to elevating candidates with a narrow range of beliefs.

If party elites were merely strategic actors, the data would show higher support for moderate candidates in swing races, while not showing as much support in seats that were either safe or out of reach. That’s not the case. In Hassell’s findings, parties consistently supported the more moderate primary candidate, regardless of the expected outcome of the general election. Even after excluding incumbents — which party committees almost always support — support for moderates holds. It’s also consistent regardless of party. And while this data set used Senate races, for his book Hassell also measured House races, finding the same result.

I wonder to what degree this is a consequence of a sincere view supporting moderate positions among party leaders as opposed to holding views to please their donors. Hassell leans towards sincerity on the party of party leaders, but this would be difficult to prove. Hassell also had one possibly favorable finding for progressives–views of party leaders have not remained static over time. On the one hand the establishment is not fixed. On the other hand, the establishment now dominated by Clinton-style “New Democrats.”

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