Opinion | Campaign

The importance of moderate voters

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In the virulent reality that grips the electorate, give President Trump 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-Cortez 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."

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 Phillips ran on the slogan "Everybody's Invited." In New York, Max Rose campaigned on "Duty. Patriotism. Service." In Florida, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala 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 Fitzpatrick ran on the slogan "One Community. Now more than ever." In New York, John Katko ran as "Solid. Steady. Strong." Both won in districts that Hillary Clinton 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 Sanders or Kamala Harris. 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.

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