Moderate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020?

Moderate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020?
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With two months until the commencement of the caucuses and primaries in February, some Democratic presidential candidates have moved left of center and others have taken more moderate positions on issues such as health care. It’s not clear who ultimately will prevail, but elections since the 1960s give some hints. Trends are not entirely consistent, but they do tell us on what the outcome most likely will depend.

In 1964, stalwart conservative Barry Goldwater beat out several more moderate opponents to win the Republican nomination, just as George McGovern, a left-leaning Democrat, triumphed over more moderate Democrats in 1972. (In 1972, it undoubtedly helped McGovern that as co-chair of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, he helped write the rules for winning party delegates in the Democratic primaries.) 

These primary winners, however, were crushed by their centrist opponents (Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Republican Richard Nixon in 1972), who also happened to be the incumbents in those years. This suggests that a non-centrist nominee may win his or her party’s nomination but probably will go down to defeat against a centrist in the general election.

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But this picture was not so clear in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a decidedly right-of-center Republican nominee, decisively beat the incumbent, Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPolitical science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction Mellman: Democrats — Buckle up for a wild ride Trump and Obama equally admired? Eight things popularity polls tell us MORE, in the general election. Considered a centrist by many voters when he won the White House in 1976, Carter by 1980 was sullied by high oil prices, raging inflation and American hostages still imprisoned in Iran after an aborted rescue mission (Iran freed the hostages the day Reagan was inaugurated). Clearly, the policies and record of an incumbent also matter. 

It is useful to recall that Reagan was not exactly an unknown in 1980. He had almost wrested the Republican nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, which had softened his image as a right-winger and made him more credible as a reasonable alternative to Carter’s flawed policies.

Reagan triumphed again in 1984 against moderate Democrat Walter Mondale after the Federal Reserve chair, Paul Volker — appointed by Carter in 1979 — had tamed inflation. In addition, Reagan championed an assertive foreign policy that Carter had not. 

Continuing for the next seven elections, candidates perceived to be moderates of their parties were the nominees. But in 2016, things changed radically with the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. How did this happen?

Treatises have been written on President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE’s victory in the Republican primaries and the general election, but the most compelling explanation for his primary victory, in my opinion, is that he faced a large, divided field and therefore stood out as refreshingly different for many partisans, just as Goldwater had in 1964 and McGovern had in 1972. But in a one-on-one contest against a single moderate opponent such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump probably would have lost the Republican nomination.

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In the 2016 general election, Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSupreme Court agrees to hear 'faithless elector' cases Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires MORE had lost the 2008 nomination race to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires Biden's new campaign ad features Obama speech praising him MORE and in 2016 faced significant opposition on the left from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders over handling of feud with Warren On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (I-Vt.) before she won. She suffered from past mistakes, campaign blunders — as Carter had in 1980 and George H.W. Bush had in 1988 — as well as Russian interference in our elections.   

This look back indicates that it usually helps to be a moderate in the general election, but not necessarily in the primaries, as 1964, 1972 and 2016 showed. Yet moderates and even some incumbents have lost in general elections, which includes 1980 (Carter against Reagan) and 1992 (George H.W. Bush against Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump chooses high-profile but controversial legal team The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump beefs up impeachment defense with Dershowitz, Starr Trump to add Dershowitz, Ken Starr to impeachment defense team MORE).

How do these precedents augur for 2020? Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee, the outcome may most depend on what liabilities, such as impeachment, accumulate against him in the next year (but remember that Bill Clinton’s impeachment in his second term had little impact on his presidency). The only clearly right-leaning president who has won reelection is Reagan, but Trump’s presidency, if it can be considered right-leaning, is difficult to gauge because of his bizarre behavior in office. 

Nevertheless, conventional wisdom — that a moderate usually will beat an extremist in the general election — probably holds, though a persuasive and passionate left-of-center candidate, who may draw in minority and new voters, could also have a good chance.

Steven J. Brams is professor of politics at New York University and author of “The Presidential Election Game” (Yale University Press and A.K. Peters) and “Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures” (Princeton University Press).