July 17, 2019

Democratic Candidates: Big Structural Change or Incremental Change?


If you have been following U.S. politics lately, especially from the perspective of someone on the left, you have undoubtedly heard the theory that the Democrats should nominate a more moderate presidential candidate because such a candidate will have broader appeal to the whole electorate rather than just the more progressive segment of the electorate. This theory has some appeal. A centrist candidate ought to have a broader appeal than a far-left candidate. While the centrist candidate certainly did not work in 2016, that may have had more to do with the specific candidate. Unfortunately, this theory is difficult to evaluate. I'm not sure those pushing it are doing much more than speculating.

A recent poll found that 54% of Democratic primary voters preferred a candidate who "proposes larger scale policies that cost more and might be harder to pass into law, but could bring major change" vs. 41% who preferred a candidate who "proposes smaller scale policies that cost less and might be easier to pass into law, but will bring less change." This makes it sound like a more progressive candidate is likely to have greater appeal to Democratic primary voters than a centrist. This is not surprising, and it may indicate that the party will end up nominating one of the many progressive candidates. But even if it does suggest that, it doesn't tell us much about how such a candidate would do in a general election.

Likely Democratic primary voters say that they want a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. They also say, apparently, that they want a candidate who comes down on the side of bigger albeit less realistic change. Can they have both? Maybe so. Some Democrats certainly believe that whichever one of the more progressive candidates they prefer has the best chance of beating Trump. I envy them because this has to be the most pleasant position to be in. If I thought my preferred candidate was also the one with the best chance of winning a general election, I'd certainly sleep better.

For the rest of us, we are left having to wrestle with the possibility that the person we most like might not have the best chance of winning. Do we support that candidate anyway, or do we decide to support someone who is not our first choice because we think they have a better chance of defeating Trump? That is, do we go with idealism or pragmatism?

My views have shifted somewhat as the primary season has unfolded. I still believe I could support any of the Democratic candidates currently running in a general election even though I have my favorites. As a result, I am not interested in joining in the rush to bash every candidate except my first choice. That strikes me as counterproductive. As for the primary itself, I am currently inclined to vote for whichever candidate I prefer without regard to my assessment of his or her (probably her) chances in the general election. Voting for someone I don't like as much because I think he or she might be a stronger candidate in the general election presumes that I'd be able to make an accurate assessment. With my past performance as an indicator, I doubt that's the case.