Democratic Party Elites Versus Rank-and-File

Peter Beinart gets at something I’ve noticed when I talk to other Democrats in D.C. (and I mean D.C., as most don’t have any meaningful connections to official Wor-Shing-Tun); my completely unscientific sample is about forty percent black, ten percent Latino (boldface mine):

Judging by media coverage and the comments of party luminaries, you might think Democrats are bitterly polarized over Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. Last month, Hillary Clinton declared that “nobody likes” the Vermont senator. Last week, James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said he was “scared to death” of the Sanders campaign, which he likened to “a cult.” Since the beginning of the year, news organization after news organization has speculated that Sanders’s success may set off a Democratic “civil war.”

But polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort. Among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals. He sparks less opposition—in some cases far less—than his major competitors. On paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination.

So why all the talk of civil war? Because Sanders is far more divisive among Democratic elites—who prize institutional loyalty and ideological moderation—than Democratic voters. The danger is that by projecting their own anxieties onto rank-and-file Democrats, party insiders are exaggerating the risk of a schism if Sanders wins the nomination, and overlooking the greater risk that the party could fracture if they engineer his defeat.

Strange as it sounds, Sanders may be the least polarizing candidate in the presidential field, at least according to surveys of ordinary Democrats. A Monmouth University poll last week found not only that Sanders’s favorability rating among Democrats nationally—71 percent—was higher than his five top rivals’, but also that his unfavorability rating—19 percent—was tied for second lowest. Sanders’s net favorability rating was six points higher than Elizabeth Warren’s, 16 points higher than Joe Biden’s, 18 points higher than Pete Buttigieg’s, 23 points higher than Amy Klobuchar’s, and a whopping 40 points higher than that of Michael Bloomberg, whom more than a third of Democratic voters viewed unfavorably. (By contrast, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—whom Sanders’s critics often cite as a cautionary tale—enjoyed the support of only 56 percent of his own party members in the months leading up to December’s British election.)

…Although political handicappers sometimes presume that centrist Democrats are hostile to Sanders, the Quinnipiac poll suggests that Sanders enjoys widespread affection even outside his ideological lane. Among self-described moderate or conservative Democrats, Sanders boasts a net favorability rating of 43 points—far higher than Biden or Bloomberg fares among the “very liberal” Democrats who comprise Sanders’s ideological base. Ninety-eight percent of Warren supporters, 97 percent of Buttigieg supporters and 92 percent of Biden supporters say they would back Sanders against Donald Trump. Only among Bloomberg supporters does that number dip to 83 percent. Overall, Sanders voters are significantly more likely to say that they won’t back one of his rivals in the general election than the other way around. Sanders’s critics within the party may resent his supporters for threatening to stay home in November. But most Democratic voters, including most centrist ones, have little problem with Sanders himself.

None of this means Sanders would necessarily beat Trump. His ultra-progressive policies and socialist self-identification could energize Trump’s base and alienate the independents and Republican moderates who backed Democratic candidates in 2018. But the evidence does suggest that, if Democratic elites let him, he’s capable of unifying his party’s rank and file behind his campaign. He’s far better positioned than Trump was at this point in 2016, when his net favorability rating among Republicans was almost 20 points lower than Sanders’s is among Democrats today.

But many Democratic insiders remain deeply skeptical. Sanders’s support among party elites dramatically lags his support among Democratic voters. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Endorsement Tracker, which awards candidates points when party officials endorse them, Sanders ranks fourth in endorsement points, behind Bloomberg and Warren and far behind Biden. While ordinary voters don’t exhibit much hostility toward Sanders, party leaders do.

My impression that most Democrats I’ve talked to like Sanders, like a lot of his policies, but have serious doubts about his ‘electability.’ They think he can get ‘the kids’ out to vote–and that’s important for them–they just wonder and worry about the ‘socialism.’ Mind you, the ‘socialism’, which is just Hubert Humphrey’s economic plan updated for the 21st century, is not the issue: the concern is about Sanders losing because he’s a ‘socialist’, and the country isn’t ready for that. But he’s actually seen in a very positive light, and among black Democrats I talk to, more positively than Warren. There doesn’t seem to be opposition to Warren, they just have more excitement for Sanders. There are a lot of New Dealers in D.C. The one person I know who really doesn’t like Sanders is someone who is tied to the national party (i.e., a ‘professional Democrat’), supporting Beinart’s point, albeit with n = 1.

Just some observations with a small, unrepresentative sample (but it’s mine!).

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1 Response to Democratic Party Elites Versus Rank-and-File

  1. Dave Dell says:

    I cannot fathom why so many majorities like the policy position Sen. Sanders espouses yet will not vote for him. Ah, well…

    I feel that most Sanders supporters did vote for Sec. Clinton and those that didn’t weren’t the reason she lost the upper Midwest.

    This go-round, however, I feel the Democratic Party, should VP Biden get the nomination, will need to do a lot of work to ensure the 30-40 percent of the Dem base Sanders supporters will actually vote. I can see the impulse to just sit on their hands on election day. Will that be true when November rolls around? Efforts to make sure that doesn’t happen in the swing states (states for Obama and then for Trump) will need to be extensive,and intensive.

    Biden vs Trump. Neither one can hold it together for a whole coherent paragraph. Sigh…

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