Could ‘Somewhat Liberal’ Democrats Hold The Key To The Primary?


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I’m not totally sure what it means to be “somewhat liberal.” In fact, “somewhat liberal” Democrats don’t seem totally sure either. But those voters may wind up picking the Democratic presidential nominee.

In entrance and exit polls for the Democratic primaries, and in many other surveys, pollsters often ask respondents to describe their ideology in one of four ways: very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate or conservative. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the plurality of voters — 42 percent in Iowa, 40 percent in New Hampshire — described themselves as somewhat liberal. These voters leaned towards former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa, and split between Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.1

The other ideological groups voted more firmly within their “lanes.” Sanders was far ahead of his Democratic rivals in both states among voters who identified as very liberal (between one-fifth and a quarter of the electorate in both states). Among self-described moderates — around one-third of voters — Buttigieg tied former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa and tied Sen. Amy Klobuchar in New Hampshire. (Democratic primary voters who identify as conservative represented only 2 percent of the vote in Iowa and 4 percent in New Hampshire.)

So you can see why the somewhat liberal bloc is interesting — it’s big, and it’s not necessarily aligned with the more center-left or left-wing candidates. It’s likely to be an important group in upcoming states too; among the 27 states where we have exit or entrance poll data from the 2016 Democratic primaries, somewhat liberal Democrats were the plurality in 18.2

But it would be hard for a candidate to appeal directly to somewhat liberal Democrats. They are not a group unified by much of anything.

1. They don’t share a set of policy positions. A CBS News analysis from 2019 looked at the policy priorities of the different ideological wings of the Democratic Party, focusing in particular on registered voters in Super Tuesday states. Not surprisingly, very liberal Democrats cared more about fighting climate change, protecting abortion rights, protecting immigrants and addressing race and gender issues. Moderate and conservative Democrats cared more about lowering taxes and creating jobs.

Somewhat liberal Democrats were … basically somewhere in between the two on almost every issue. As a group, they don’t seem to have their own issues.

2. Nor are they defined by demographics. Moderate and conservative Democrats as a single group are disproportionately black (28 percent, according to that CBS News analysis), disproportionately Hispanic (20 percent) and less white (44 percent) than the party overall. (For comparison, a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis found that registered Democratic voters overall are about 59 percent white, 19 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, with the remaining group either Asian or of other racial and ethnic groups.)

But somewhat liberal Democrats simply mirror the party overall — 63 percent white, 14 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, according to the CBS study. And they tend to mirror the racial and ethnic composition of the Democratic electorate in specific states too. In the 2016 primaries, for example, Sanders was dominant among somewhat liberal Democrats in some states, such as Wisconsin, but lost badly to Hillary Clinton among this bloc in other states, such as Florida. This generally tracked with the candidates’ performances broadly — i.e., Clinton was stronger among somewhat liberal states that she won and weaker among this bloc in states that she lost. Most likely, somewhat liberal voters as a group are whiter in whiter states and more diverse in more diverse states, and generally Sanders did better with white voters while Clinton did better with nonwhite voters.

Somewhat liberal voters weren’t united in 2016

Share of self-identified somewhat liberal respondents, by vote in 2016 Democratic primaries and caucuses

New Hampshire424357
West Virginia284153
North Carolina305345
New York375941
South Carolina307030

Like Democrats overall, the majority of Democrats who identify as liberal but not very liberal are women (about 60 percent), according to Pew.

The group’s one differentiating demographic characteristic? Somewhat liberal Democrats skew a bit older (28 percent are over 65, per CBS) than the party overall (about 20 percent, per Pew). But that’s not a huge difference.

3. They are not necessarily anti- or pro-establishment. Again, let’s go back to the 2016 primaries: Sanders ran as the outsider candidate while Clinton ran as the establishment candidate. But as the table above shows, there wasn’t really any consistent pattern in somewhat liberal voters’ preferences state to state, suggesting that how insider vs. outsider a candidate is wasn’t a deciding factor for them.

So what does it mean for the primary that the biggest bloc of voters is kind of unattached to any specific policy or identity? I think it’s more evidence that the primary could go in a lot of different directions. A big chunk of somewhat liberal voters might embrace Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar or even Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer. But there’s also no reason to think many of them won’t eventually get behind Sanders — so analyses suggesting Sanders’s base is too small for him to win aren’t accounting for the fact that he can appeal to the majority of Democratic voters (those who are either very liberal or somewhat liberal Democrats). Or these voters could split among a number of different candidates, creating the potential for a contested convention.

Other polling nuggets

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 43.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -8.9 points). At this time last week, 43.9 percent approved and 51.8 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -7.9 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.3 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.8 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.5 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 5.6 percentage points (47.3 percent to 41.7 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 5.7 points (47.2 percent to 41.5 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.6 points (47.5 percent to 40.9 percent).