Local & State Voices

Will liberals win the war for the Democratic Party?

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s We Decide: 2020 Election Membership Forum at the USC Alumni Center in Columbia, SC.
Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s We Decide: 2020 Election Membership Forum at the USC Alumni Center in Columbia, SC. jblake@thestate.com

Every four years, in every presidential race, Democrats have a war between moderates and liberals. Most every time, a moderate wins.

This may be contrary to conventional wisdom. But you can look it up.

Look at every contested nomination since 1960, when John F. Kennedy beat Hubert Humphrey, through 2016, when Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders. Yes, even 2008, when Barack Obama was more moderate than Clinton and John Edwards.

Think Jimmy Carter, who liberals didn’t like in 1976 and who beat Ted Kennedy in 1980. Think Bill Clinton, who ran as a “New Democrat” – i.e.: “Not Liberal.”

Even nominees who got tagged as liberals in the fall campaign had beaten more liberal Democrats. Michael Dukakis beat Richard Gephardt and Jesse Jackson in 1988. John Kerry beat Howard Dean in 2004.

In fact, only twice did the most liberal candidate win the nomination – George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Both times, Democrats got decimated in November.

But, in 2020, Democrats may well nominate a real liberal to run against President Trump.

For the first time, the Gallup Poll says, a majority of Democrats identify themselves as liberals. That number has been rising steadily for years, from 25 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2010 to 51 percent today.

Pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, says Trump has accelerated the trend. Trump exerts a sort of anti-gravity force on Democrats, pushing them left.

Among all Americans, 35 percent describe themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 26 percent as liberal. Gallup says:

  • From 1992 to 2016, the percentage of Americans calling themselves conservative “was consistently between 36 percent and 40 percent, before dipping to 35 percent in 2017 and holding at that level in 2018.”

  • Since 1992, the percentage of moderates has shrunk from 43 percent to 35 percent.

  • The percentage of liberals has grown from 17 percent to 26 percent.

Clearly, the number of liberals is growing. Just as clearly, 70 percent of Americans are moderate or conservative. While 51 percent of Democrats are liberals.

Therein lies Democrats’ tension. Moderates say moving left will scare away centrist voters who just want a “safe” alternative to Trump. Liberals say Americans want “big, structural change” and the nominee must energize young voters and non-white voters.

You see the split in Democratic presidential polls. Joe Biden, the leading moderate, has been getting roughly 25 to 35 percent in most polls. The leading liberals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, got a combined 25 to 35 percent. The rest is split among the rest of the field.

This week, a Monmouth University poll showed Warren and Sanders at 20 percent each and Biden at 19. Biden had dropped from 32 in June; Sanders picked up 6 and Warren, 5.

In the past, moderates have won nomination partly because Democrats in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are more moderate – and more white – than in other states. Next year, Iowa is Feb. 3, and New Hampshire is Feb. 11.

Then the landscape changes.

The caucuses in Nevada, which are heavily Hispanic, are Feb. 22. The South Carolina primary, which is heavily African-American, is Saturday, Feb. 29. The following Tuesday, March 3, brings a super-sized Super Tuesday, with North Carolina as well as Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia Democrats Abroad and maybe Maine.

Who’ll be left standing? Maybe a liberal, a moderate and a hard-to-peg wild card or two.

Then Democrats will have a real war.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant. He was an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt, 1976-1984 and 1992-2000.
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