During the Democratic primaries this year, the headlines about what was happening in the party were both breathless and contradictory. The most common message, though, was that a segment of the Democrats had lurched far left and was engaged in a “civil war” with the party establishment. These Democratic Socialists, this version goes, were “conquering” the Democratic Party.
Now that the primaries are over, we can make some more definitive conclusions. Bottom line, the progressive movement is energized, but there is not much evidence that it is taking over the Democratic Party or pulling it far to the left.
My organization, the Brookings Institution, has studied, starting in the 2014 midterms, the websites of every candidate running for Congress in both parties. Our Primaries Project is working not with a sample of congressional candidates but with the entire universe of candidates. We have coded those websites for who the candidates are, where they place themselves within their party and where they stand on issues.
The first thing we noticed is that there were many more self-identified progressives running in 2018 than in 2014 or 2016. In those earlier two elections, 26 percent and 29 percent of Democratic House candidates called themselves progressive; by 2018, 44 percent did. This is compelling evidence of a lively progressive movement within the party.
But in spite of their large numbers, progressives did not do as well at the polls as the candidates we identified as establishment Democrats. This past primary season, 140 establishment candidates, or 35 percent of the total establishment candidates, won their primaries, in contrast to 101 progressive Democrats, or 27 percent.
Moreover, establishment Democrats tended to win the nomination in districts that are most likely to flip from Democratic to Republican, meaning that the House Democratic Caucus that meets next January will probably be composed of fewer progressives than would be indicated by their numbers on the ballot. In congressional districts that are evenly matched or slightly Republican, there are more establishment challengers than progressive challengers. More solid Republican districts, however, have a relatively large number of progressive nominees. In these districts, it is more difficult for a Democrat to win — unless the blue wave turns into a blue tsunami.
As all this shows, the Democratic Party is not having a big left-wing shift. So what is the real news from the primary season?
First, a new generation is entering Democratic politics, and many of them are female. In 2014 only 21 percent of House Democratic challengers were women, but by 2018 33 percent were.
The surprise victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts’s Seventh Congressional District were important because both candidates were relatively young women of color who reflected the changes in their district. Both defeated white men in majority-minority districts. But these men were liberal, especially Mike Capuano in Massachusetts. The two women are favored to win in November, and in Congress, their votes are not likely to differ significantly from the votes of the members they replace, so they will not change the distribution of votes in the House Democratic Caucus.
Second, the most successful endorsement group in the 2018 primaries was not Our Revolution or any of the other new progressive political action groups — it was that most staid of all organizations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which won 39 of the 41 races in which it endorsed a candidate. By focusing on candidates who “fit” the district and had deep roots there, such as Jason Crow in Colorado and Linda Coleman in North Carolina, the congressional committee was looking at more than ideology. It was looking for candidates who could win.
Third, progressive candidates brought both a new energy and a new issue to the table this year. A recent Pew Research Center reportshows that Democratic turnout in the congressional primaries was up substantially this cycle — a 56 percent increase over the 2014 midterm elections. This is most likely a function of the large jump in contested Democratic primaries and the energy on the left.
The new issue was Medicare for All. In our review of the congressional candidates, this was endorsed much more often by progressive candidates than by establishment ones. But this is not as divisive an issue as some would make it out to be. Democratic Party platforms have called for universal health care for decades.
Buy-in to Medicare for those over 55 years old was considered by the Democratic Congress in 2009 and lost narrowly. Medicare for All will be debated if the Democrats return to power.
But in the meantime, it is not the kind of idea that will cause a civil war inside the Democratic caucus. As we go into the November elections, the notion that the Democratic Party has been captured by the extreme left simply doesn’t hold water.
Elaine Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”