The importance of moderate voters

The importance of moderate voters
© Greg Nash

In the virulent reality that grips the electorate, give President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE credit for strategic flare, witting or instinctual. He has pushed the right further to the right and the left further to the left. The result is a continued cleaving of both our political parties that raises the question: Can the center hold?

Two weeks ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMan raises over 0K to purchase and donate Goya products after calls for boycott Huckabee rips Ocasio-Cortez over 'astonishing' remarks about uptick in NYC crime Black voters: We need all of them MORE ventured her opinion at South by Southwest in Austin with a shrug of her shoulders. “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life, like, meh,” she said. The audience cheered loudly. She continued, “And the ‘meh’ is like worshipped now for what? Like, for what?” The audience cheered again.

Of course people cheered. The party bases are now in such polarity that Thomas Edsall of the New York Times wrote about a recent survey that showed 42 percent of the people in each party view their “members of the opposition party as “not just worse for politics” but “downright evil.”

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As a result of gerrymandering and residential migration, only about 70 congressional districts today fall into the competitive category, election analyst David Wasserman has found. Those moderate districts are ghost towns in a warring Congress. All the others are far left or far right, where incumbents are haunted not by a centrist general election opponent but rather an ideological primary opponent. It is lonely at the middle.

But there is empirical evidence that political moderation can be a winning strategy for Democrats. In fact, there are 40 exhibits, as seen with the new members of Congress who were able to flip Republican districts in the 2018 midterms and made possible the Democratic majority. They ran and messaged not on partisan politics but rather on real pragmatic solutions.

In Minnesota, Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsIn the next COVID-19 bill, target innovation and entrepreneurship Small businesses receive much-needed Paycheck Protection Program fixes House passes bill to grant flexibility for small business aid program MORE ran on the slogan “Everybody’s Invited.” In New York, Max RoseMax RoseAlarm grows over Americans stranded in Yemen amid pandemic Moderate House Democrats introduce bill aimed at stopping China from exploiting coronavirus pandemic Republican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose MORE campaigned on “Duty. Patriotism. Service.” In Florida, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaJohn Kerry hosting virtual campaign events for Biden The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly MORE focused on her experience with “Ready on Day One.” All three won districts held by Republicans. Still more ran successful campaigns focused on improving the everyday lives of their constituents instead of on partisan warfare.

Successful Republicans in moderate districts treaded a similar line. In Pennsylvania, Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickKaren Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - States are pausing reopening Democrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill MORE ran on the slogan “One Community. Now more than ever.” In New York, John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoHillicon Valley: Wells Fargo tells employees to delete TikTok from work phones | Google, Facebook join legal challenge to ICE foreign students rule | House Republican introduces bills to bolster federal cybersecurity House Republican introduces legislation to strengthen federal cybersecurity Democrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill MORE ran as “Solid. Steady. Strong.” Both won in districts that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Wells Fargo tells employees to delete TikTok from work phones | Google, Facebook join legal challenge to ICE foreign students rule | House Republican introduces bills to bolster federal cybersecurity Biden lets Trump be Trump 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch MORE secured in the 2016 election.

Despite the successful electoral model that Democrats crafted in the 2018 midterms, the Democrats now find themselves in the kind of paradox that invokes some anomaly of physics: They expanded their majority outward with centrist voters, but their energy surges in their progressive nucleus.

There is some good news for lonely pragmatists clinging to a shrinking center. A Monmouth University poll found that 57 percent of Democrats are more interested in a candidate who can defeat President Trump than one who passes an ideological purity test, even if they disagree with the candidate on most issues. Only a third said they would pick someone they agree with on issues but who would have a tough time defeating Trump.

But there is also a risk there, along with a delicate line to tread. A strong general election candidate simply cannot afford to dispirit the young energy of voters who travel hundreds of miles to hear Bernie SandersBernie SandersOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten smog standards amid pressure from green groups | Democrats split on Trump plan to use development funds for nuclear projects| Russian mining giant reports another fuel spill in Arctic Biden lets Trump be Trump Democrats split on Trump plan to use development funds for nuclear projects MORE or Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE. Predicting how this will shake out, especially in this in a volatile environment is a risky proposition. However, there is one fairly safe assumption. For both parties, the 2020 election will be won not on ideology alone but also geography. It will be about creating strategies for winning bellwether counties in bellwether states in the Electoral College.

Some enthusiasts might eschew, like the Sanders campaign volunteer who told the New York Times the country has had enough of the “centrist” and “corporatist” Democrats “that my mom would have voted for back in the ’90s.” The reality is that if Trump will be defeated, it will be by winning over swing voters from Polk County, Iowa to Macomb County, Michigan and from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Hillsborough County, Florida.

The fact for Democrats is the left and the middle need each other. On the other hand, Trump has to further polarize the electorate. His playbook will be to dampen enthusiasm on the left, maintain his conservative base, and poach the remnants in the middle. That means that moderate voters are indeed up for grabs. They may feel lonely at the moment, but they could very well end up determining the next president. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the death of moderate voters is an exaggeration.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.