In the Democratic Party, despite its better-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm elections, internecine combat has been playing out in disputes over the party’s nominees and the policies they propose. At the nuts-and-bolts level of candidate selection, the debate has become intensely emotional and increasingly hostile.
Strategists on the progressive wing of the party call centrists “corporate sellouts.” Centrists, in turn, accuse progressives of alienating voters by promoting an extremist cultural and law enforcement agenda.
I asked Liam Kerr, co-founder of the centrist Welcome PAC, for his views on state of the intraparty debate. He emailed back:
Take the Dec. 16 analysis of the 2022 election by another centrist group, Third Way, “Comparing the Performance of Mainstream v. Far-Left Democrats in the House”: “Far-left groups like Sanders-style Our Revolution and AOC’s Justice Democrats constantly argue that the more left the candidate, the better chance of winning, saying their candidates will energize base voters and deliver victory,” Lanae Erickson, Lucas Holtz and Maya Jones of Third Way wrote.
In an effort to test the claim of progressive groups, they note, “We conducted case studies analyzing districts with comparable partisan leans and demographically similar makeups to discern how Democratic congressional candidates endorsed by the center-left New Democrat Action Fund (NewDems) performed in the 2022 midterm elections versus those endorsed by far-left organizations.”
I asked Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, if the organization had flipped any House seats from red to blue. He replied by email:
In part because of Our Revolution’s support, he continued:
Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, emailed in response to a similar inquiry of mine that his group does not focus on shifting seats from red to blue: “We haven’t run really races in those areas. We’ve been focused on blue seats where the incumbent is corporate-backed and out of touch with their district.”
Instead, Shahid wrote: “After the 2022 election cycle, the Congressional Progressive Caucus stated the incoming membership is the largest in its history at 103 members. The top three leaders are also all Justice Democrats: Rep. Pramila Jayapal as chair; Rep. Ilhan Omar as deputy chair; and Rep-elect Greg Casar as whip.”
In addition, Shahid argued, “Progressives have a lot to do with Democrats’ ambitious agenda under President Biden. Our work at Justice Democrats engaging in competitive primaries, win or lose, has been a big part of it — moving Democratic incumbents on key issues.”
If, Shahid contended, “you think of politicians as balloons tied to the rock of public opinion, then progressives have substantially moved the rock,” adding that
While this debate may appear arcane, the dispute involves two different visions of the Democratic Party, one of a governing party guided by the principles of consensus and restraint, the other of a party that represents insurgent, marginalized constituencies and consistently challenges the establishment.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, was adamant in his criticism of Third Way, declaring in an email: “Every cycle, Third Way cooks the books with a false accounting of how races were run and won.”
Green objected to Third Way’s comparison of the results of the New Democrat Coalition PAC, which has official standing with the House, with the result of such outside groups as Justice Democrats and Our Revolution.
If, however, the endorsees of the New Democrat Coalition are compared with the endorsees of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the New Democrat Coalition PAC candidates flipped a total of 42 seats from red to blue, 32 in 2018, 3 in 2020 and 7 in 2022, while the candidates endorsed by Congressional Progressive Caucus flipped a total of 8 over the three cycles, all in 2018, according to officials of both groups. The Progressive Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition have roughly equal numbers of members.
Joe Dinkin, of the Working Families Party, dismissed the Third Way study as the “conclusions of the corporate flank of the Democratic Party” that have been subject to “very little scrutiny.”
In the newly elected Congress, Dinkin wrote,
The intraparty debate boils down to a choice between two goals.
If the objective is strengthening the left in the Democratic House Caucus, the way to achieve that goal is to nominate the most progressive candidate running in the primary. On that score, the size of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has grown, since its founding in 1991, to 103 members (as noted above). Overall, the composition of the Democratic electorate continues to shift to the left as have the votes of House Democrats, albeit slightly.
If winning more seats is the top priority, the preponderance of evidence suggests that nominating moderate, centrist candidates in districts where Republicans have a chance of winning is the more effective strategy, with the caveat that a contemporary moderate is substantially more liberal than the moderate of two decades ago.
Most — though by no means all — scholarly work supports the view that moderate candidates in competitive districts are more likely to win.
Zachary F. Peskowitz, a political scientist at Emory, argued in an email that
Contrary to the argument that a more progressive candidate can mobilize base voters, Peskowitz argued that “nominating extremist candidates might increase turnout, but not enough to compensate for ceding moderates’ votes to your opponent. Moreover, there is a risk that an extremist will also mobilize the opposition to turn out to vote.”
In sum, Peskowitz wrote:
Andrew B. Hall, a political scientist at Stanford, has examined the debate over moderate-versus-progressive candidates extensively, including in a 2018 paper with Daniel M. Thompson, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., “Who Punishes Extremist Nominees? Candidate Ideology and Turning Out the Base in U.S. Elections.”
Hall and Thompson write: “We find that extremist nominees — as measured by the mix of campaign contributions they receive — suffer electorally, largely because they decrease their party’s share of turnout in the general election, skewing the electorate towards their opponent’s party.”
“Turnout,” they add, “appears to be the dominant force in determining election outcomes, but it advantages ideologically moderate candidates because extremists appear to activate the opposing party’s base more than their own.”
Hall and Thompson compared general election results from 2006 to 2014 in House races that involved close primary contests between a moderate and a more extreme candidate. They found that instead of lifting turnout, there were “strong, negative effects of extremist nominees on their party’s share of turnout in the general election.” Extremist nominees, they observed, “depress their party’s share of turnout in the general election, on average.”
Hall and Thompson conclude that it is moderates who have a turnout advantage in general elections. They make two points.
First, “We have found consistent evidence that extremist nominees do poorly in general elections in large part because they skew turnout in the general election away from their own party and in favor of the opposing party.”
And second, “Much of moderate candidates’ success may actually be due to the turnout of partisan voters, rather than to swing voters who switch sides. In fact, our regression discontinuity estimates are consistent with the possibility that the bulk of the vote-share penalty to extremist nominees is the result of changes in partisan turnout.”
An earlier study, from 2010, “Securing the Base: Electoral Competition Under Variable Turnout,” by Michael Peress, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, produced similar results: “My results indicate that the candidates can best compete by adopting centrist positions. While a candidate can increase turnout among his supporters by moving away from the center, many moderate voters will defect to his opponent.”
Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University, agreed that “moderate candidates perform better in general elections,” but, he added, “that advantage is declining as baseline partisanship drives most results regardless of candidates. Because we have national partisan parity, small candidate advantages can still be important.”
The moderation factor, Grossman wrote by email, “was more pronounced on the Republican side because Republicans ran more extreme candidates and those candidates had less experience. There continues to be no evidence in either party that extreme candidates mobilize their side more than they mobilize the other side or turn off swing voters.”
Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime critic of the Democrats’ progressive wing, contends in a recent essay, “Ten Reasons Why Democrats Should Become More Moderate,” that adoption of an extreme progressive stance is not only “dead wrong,” but that “Democrats need to fully and finally reject it if they hope to break the current electoral stalemate in their favor.”
In the 2022 election, Teixeira writes,
According to Teixeira,
Teixeira’s final point:
A postelection analysis conducted by officials of Impact Research, the firm that polls for President Biden, provides further support for a moderate strategy by emphasizing the crucial importance in the 2022 contest of winning support from independent voters.
In their Dec. 7 study, “How Democrats Prevented a Red Wave,” John Anzalone, founder of Impact, and Matt Hogan, a partner, wrote
A key factor in Democrats’ ability to win over independents, according to Anzalone and Hogan,
As a practical matter, the debate between proponents of moderation and proponents of progressivism may be less of a dilemma for the Democratic Party than an ongoing process in which the party, its voters and its elected officials move leftward, often turbulently. At the same time, the Democratic Party has a storied history of cannibalizing its own — and Republicans are catching up quickly. It is getting harder to see a peaceable and productive resolution between the two parties or inside them.
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