Any party fighting for a third consecutive term in the White House is bound to do some soul-searching. Stick to the outgoing president and his policies (like the GOP in 1988), or treat him like the plague (same party, twenty years later)? At any rate, the Democratic Party is approaching this question, as the Obama Presidency enters its final years, and as the 2016 chatter heats up. Of course, the entire party’s presidential field currently hinges on the choice of one person: Hillary Clinton. This is incredibly convenient for the Democratic Party, because having a presumptive nominee masks over all sorts of unpleasant ideological differences. However, even if a Clinton nomination is practically guaranteed, unity in the Democratic Party is anything but. Take this quote from Andrew Kohut in the Washington Post as an example:
“Even as conventional wisdom coalesces around Hillary Rodham Clinton as the establishment candidate, the success of prominent progressives – Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio come to mind – means the party could face an ideological divide in 2016.”
This article will discuss the growing divisions among Democrats – and what those divisions could mean for the party’s future.
To understand the potential split in the Democratic Party, one needs to look at the recent ideological trends in the group. In January, Gallup released a poll that is incredibly useful for this purpose. In 2007, Democrats who identified themselves as liberals were almost equal in number to those who identified themselves as moderates: 38% each.
Yet, as recently as last year, moderate Democrats slipped to 36%, while liberal Democrats surged to 43%. Taking all of these numbers together, it is easy to see that the party has become more liberal in recent years, but is by no means dominated by liberals. As a point of comparison, 70% of Republicans consider themselves conservatives.
There is an almost equal ideological split in the Democratic Party: liberals versus moderates. The even greater challenge is that there seems to be only one person who can unite the factions: Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, the party is in deep trouble. Take the favorability ratings of Elizabeth Warren as an example. Pew reported in January that the Massachusetts senator was viewed favorably by 54% of liberal Democrats, while only 35% of moderate and conservative Democrats shared the same positive opinion of her. Additionally, the majority of moderate/conservative Democrats did not even have an opinion of Warren.
This lack of enthusiasm on the moderate side of the Democratic Party for more liberal figures bodes ill for the progressive wing of the party. Writing in The Atlantic, Molly Ball said the following about aspirations of progressives in the party:
“Progressive groups would like to play the role in the Democratic Party that the Tea Party plays in the GOP, forcing elected officials to stake out less moderate positions in order to win party primaries.”
Here is the problem: the Republican Party’s ideological composition was fertile ground for the rise of the Tea Party, but the composition of the Democratic Party may not be suitable for a leftward lurch – a libsurgency.
Here is another problem: tilting towards progressivism may hurt the electability of Democratic candidates. Between 2007 and 2013, independent voters became more conservative (from 29% to 35%) and less moderate (from 45% to 40%) and liberal (from 21% to 20%). Appeasing the progressive wing of the party may produce more genuinely liberal nominees, but might also produce more losing nominees.
Perhaps the most basic – and most important – question is this: what constitutes Democratic values, Democratic priorities? Will the next nominee be pitched as Barack Obama’s heir? Or will the next nominee try to distance herself from the outgoing president?
There is historical evidence that the latter is most likely. The last time a party won a third term in the White House, the outgoing president (Reagan) had an average approval rating of 53% during that election year. President Obama’s average approval rating to date, according to Gallup, is 48%.
The Democratic Party of 2016 will need to be realigned to address issues that independent voters are most concerned about. A Pew poll showed that 81% of independents view the economy as a priority, with 68% saying the same for the federal budget deficit. The same poll showed most voters trusting the Republican Party over the Democratic Party on those issues.
In the end, the party of Jefferson and Jackson and Johnson faces unique challenges. Shifting ideological demographics are moving the party away from independent voters, the king-makers in any national election. The liberal-moderate division is further complicated by the fact that Democrats are seeking their third consecutive national election victory.
Soon, the GOP may not be the only party at war with itself.