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The Real Math on Moderation

Democrats need to heed electoral reality.
July 26, 2022
The Real Math on Moderation
(Composite / Shutterstock)

To keep control of Congress this fall, Democrats must answer the question of how to reach and persuade swing voters, particularly in rural America. To do this, they must meet these voters where they stand—not just geographically, but ideologically.

Research demonstrates that moderates do better and are more popular than extreme and ideological candidates. The record of the past few years drives that point home: Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, organizations that have been stalwarts of the progressive left’s post-2016 insurgency, have supported more than 100 candidates since 2018 but have yet to flip a single swing district. In fact, the four Justice Democrats-backed candidates who won in 2018 (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar) did so in such dark-blue strongholds that Joe Biden carried their districts two years later with more than 73 percent of the vote. When it comes to which kinds of candidates win the critical races that decide who controls the government and protects democracy, the progressive left lacks any electoral evidence to point to.

That fact hasn’t stopped them from pointing anyway. For example, Chloe Maxmin, a Maine state senator and self-declared “activist with unabashedly progressive politics,” joined her campaign manager Canyon Woodard in claiming in May in the New York Times that the progressive brand need not be a barrier to getting elected in rural America. They recount Maxmin’s election this way: “In one of the most rural districts in the state, voters chose the young, first-term Democrat who sponsored one of the first Green New Deal policies to pass a state legislature.” But Maxmin and Woodward’s argument is conspicuously lacking one critical element: data.

What Maxmin and Woodward neglect to point out is that they actually slightly underperformed other Democrats running on the same ballot. Data from Ballotpedia, Dave’s Redistricting, and the Maine secretary of state demonstrate that Maxmin won fewer votes than Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (both moderate Democrats) in her own state senate district. But Maxmin didn’t just underperform Biden and Pingree in terms of raw votes: She also did so in terms of vote share percentage, trailing Biden by roughly 1 point and Pingree by 2.5 points. Adding insult to injury, Maxmin’s Republican opponent outperformed Donald Trump by 4 points, and Pingree’s challenger did so by 2.5 points.

Maxmin did fare better than the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee’s challenge to popular moderate incumbent Susan Collins, who has held the seat since 1996. But Maxmin was running in a classic swing district, one that was held by a Democrat until 2014 and that was decided by just 2 points in 2018. There may be lessons in her victory, but not enough to obscure any data and criticize those who have proven an ability to overperform the Democratic presidential nominee, such as Joe Manchin and the Maine Democratic Party (which won back a Trump congressional district in 2018 and kept it in 2020 by supporting a moderate).

Maxmin and Woodward are correct to argue that Democrats must reach out and physically meet voters from beyond their base where they are. As a Southerner, I couldn’t agree more that the party must conduct more aggressive and empathetic outreach to rural voters. But the authors neglect to acknowledge what we also know to be true: Democrats must meet voters not just where they are physically, but also on the issues. The authors’ implicit insistence that Democrats can get away with running “unabashedly progressive” campaigns is harmful to candidates seeking to beat anti-democracy Republicans in swing districts across the country.

Instead, those trying to win rural swing districts (and even some districts that lean Republican) and save our democracy would be wise to take a page out of the Joe Manchin playbook: Cultivate a differentiated brand that stands apart from the Democratic party’s toxic cable-news caricature. Brand differentiation is what enabled Manchin to distance himself from his party and win re-election in in 2018 in a state that Donald Trump had carried by more than 40 points just two years earlier. My colleagues and I launched WelcomePAC last fall to recruit and support these brand-differentiated Democrats who can win crossover voters and beat authoritarian Republicans across the country on their home turf.

The hard facts of the case are clear: In general, moderates who can distance themselves from the Democratic party’s far-left national brand tend to do better in swing states than progressives who run toward it. Yet these facts have been overlooked by major national media in favor of a glossy story that suggests to progressives that they don’t have to make hard choices when trying to win swing districts. Not only have Maxmin and Woodward been featured in the Times, they’ve been highlighted by everyone from the New Yorker to Teen Vogue to Bill Maher.

In making the fact-free case that Democrats can run as unabashed progressives without penalty in swing districts, such uncritical coverage only serves to weaken and divide us at a moment when our strength and unity against Donald Trump’s radicalized Republican party is paramount. With the stakes of our political moment as high as they are right now, it’s time to tell a more honest story about what it takes for Democrats to win and save democracy.

Lauren Harper

Lauren Harper is co-founder of WelcomePAC and The Welcome Party, which work to grow and sustain a big-tent Democratic party. She previously served as South Carolina state director for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign and as policy and communications advisor for Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin.