Watershed elections are rare. Even rarer are watersheds of which the chief beneficiaries are unaware. This appears the case for California Progressives and the March 2020 primary. That’s because, though unknown by most, this primary provided the clearest snapshot ever of the size of Progressive primary power, and it’s far larger than ever presumed.
Consider the two main Progressives in the presidential race – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – combined for just under 50% of all Democratic presidential primary votes cast in California (49.2%). That’s a huge number that should end any further labeling of Progressives as a mere “faction” of the state party.
In fact, not only are Progressives clearly the largest part of the state party, a solid case exists they are also the largest part of the national Democratic coalition, with its smallest part – establishment moderates – maintaining outsized control. More on this in a bit.
But Progressives can be forgiven for missing their watershed moment. After all, the same day Sanders won California, he otherwise lost Super Tuesday and the presidential nomination to Joe Biden. It was quite the bitter pill for Progressives, but now seven months hence, they’d do well to recognize what a huge leap forward their movement made that day.
THE S+W BENCHMARK
Especially for Democrats, the March 3 California primary produced an extremely high-quality data set. First, it represents the state’s second highest primary turnout in 38 years, propelled by nearly 5.8 million Democratic presidential ballots cast. Plus with so many presidential candidates still in play at that point, little protest or “anyone-but” voting occurred to blemish the final numbers for Sanders and Warren. (For more on this, see this related piece.)
Thus the combined vote for Sanders and Warren provides as pure a benchmark of Progressive primary strength as could be hoped. Let’s call this the S+W Benchmark (Sanders + Warren), and the great thing for Progressives is S+W data is available down to the precinct level. This provides priceless data for studying electoral opportunities and strategies in the next cycle of elections.
Here are some of that primary data for California, for one interesting county (Sacramento County), and for the two principle Congressional districts within that county. S+W is in the last column.
Note: The S+W Benchmark does not include any Progressives who voted for other presidential candidates, as these are impossible to quantify. Thus, the statewide S+W of 49.2% represents a floor. Interestingly, this floor mirrors the ratio of California’s Democratic House members who are also members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (22 of 45) – a figure with room to grow.
Nowhere is the opportunity for Progressive electoral gain greater than in Sacramento County. That’s because Sacramento is the state’s largest Democratic metro area without a single member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Local politicos explain this absence by saying the capital region just has always been more moderate-to-conservative than other Democratic cities. Although data from the last few election cycles no longer supports this, this “common wisdom” is rooted so deeply locally that it’s even accepted as fact by many area Progressive, labor and environmental groups. This has led them to largely forgo recruiting, endorsing and investing resources in Progressive candidates for the bigger local seats. “What’s the point?” they’ve told me. “We just don’t have the numbers.”
But Sacramento County’s S+W of 46% loudly says otherwise. It means if much of that local Progressive energy for Sanders and Warren could be retained and redirected into a slate of local candidates, Progressives could become real players. This includes in key 2022 county races such as district attorney, sheriff and several county supervisor seats – none held by a Progressive.
The same applies to the county’s Congressional representation. Nearly 96% of Sacramento County falls within Rep. Doris Matsui’s CA-6 district and Ami Bera’s CA-7. But both Matsui and Bera have voting records more conservative than their districts. Bera has the second-most moderate voting record in California’s Democratic delegation, and Matsui is a middle-of-the-road Democrat despite a district S+W in the top third of California’s 53 House seats.
In other words, neither Congressional district is very moderate or conservative any more.
Another measure of Progressive strength is how widely popular traditional Progressive issues are nationally. Here are a few:
Each of these issues polls higher than 50% of all voters, but it makes sense to filter Republicans out. First according to Gallup, 70% of all voters nationally report being either Democrats or Independents, and this is where all votes for Democrats are. Second, including Republican views of Democratic issues only skews things in favor of moderates but with no chance of this moderation winning any GOP votes. (See Obama’s failed attempts with the public option on health care and the moderate Merit Garland nomination.)
By segmenting the polling, this also allows for a more detailed view of the Democratic Party beyond just Progressives and Mod-Dems. What’s revealed is a measurable third Democratic group. I call them “No-Label, Middle-Road Democrats” for both their reluctance to be labeled and their divided natures: in their hearts, they favor most Progressive issues, but their heads are swayed by the “slow change” and “electability” message of Moderate/Establishment Democrats.
To estimate the size of this No-Label subgroup, let’s average Democratic support for all six issues polled above. This was 84% and includes Progressives and No-Label Dems. But to err conservatively, let’s assume 75% of Dems support this Progressive platform. Subtract from this the national average S+W of 42% (derived from the first 18 states to hold a primary or caucus on or before Super Tuesday*). This results in the following breakdown:
Note how small that Mod-Dem figure is. You could theorize slightly different percentages, but it’s impossible to come to a realistic conclusion that doesn’t leave Progressives the largest part of the Democratic Partly nationally.
HOW PROGRESSIVES MOVE FORWARD
But the moderates/establishment Democrats deserve their credit. To this point, they have been able to project their numbers as far larger and Progressive ideas to be less mainstream than in actuality. On the flip side, Progressives have assisted this illusion by not realizing their true numbers and not communicating better to make it easier for the heads of No-Label Dems to follow their hearts.
What’s needed is for Progressives to evolve. Not their positions, but their messaging. Of course this is easier said than done. Every movement usually must bang down the door to get in, but once in, broad electoral success requires less bickering at the table and more grace to coax a larger coalition into being.
Sanders’ inability to pivot off old fights and battle cries, or to figure out a way to talk about his agenda with more inclusive messaging was a major reason for Biden’s stunningly fast nomination win.
But make no mistake. The largest part of S+W was Bernie Sanders. Without his indefatigable, pioneering presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, Progressive issues would not be this popular and attracting this many votes. But after Biden had effectively cinched the nomination on Super Tuesday, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (NY-D) offered this salient insight to The New York Times:
“There’s so much emphasis on making outreach as conflict-based as possible,” she said. “And sometimes I even feel miscast and [mis]understood. Because it’s about what tools you use, and conflict is one tool but not the only tool.”
That’s where S+W data can prove potent. Once more Progressives understand just how large their numbers already are, they should feel empowered to stop fighting to win every small argument and focus strategically on leveraging their electoral power into win Election Day wins.
* The state contests after Super Tuesday weren’t as competitive as the first 18 primaries and caucuses. Fewer candidates participated and voter turnout was not as high, which weakened their statistical value.