The Good Fight

Rally the Base or Persuade Moderates? Why Not Both.

The two groups Democrats need in order to win have more in common than you might think.

People gather in protest against Brett Kavanaugh. One woman holds a sign reading "IF YOU'RE MAD AS HELL, VOTE AND TELL YOUR FRIENDS."
Protesters gathered to demonstrate against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh near Washington Square Park in New York City on Oct. 6. Yana Paskova/Getty Images

For the past two years, Democrats have been debating how to regain power: Should they try to mobilize the base or focus on winning over moderates?

According to one camp, elections are all about turnout. The real reason Hillary Clinton lost is that she is unpopular with the party’s left and did not sufficiently appeal to minority voters. The remedy is therefore obvious. Democratic candidates need to make a more radical offer on the economy. And they also need to mobilize minority voters by demonstrating their unwavering commitment to police reform, the fight against mass incarceration, and transgender rights. Candidates like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who consider themselves democratic socialists and call for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are likely to generate far more excitement than the same old moderates.

According to the other camp, elections are all about persuasion. The real reason Hillary Clinton lost is that she played identity politics and was unable to retain the support of white moderates. Their supposed remedy is just as simple: Democratic candidates need to adopt economically moderate policies. They need to win back Obama-Trump voters by toning down their support for culturally divisive causes. Candidates like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who rarely criticize Donald Trump and are capable of attracting significant support among moderate white voters, are likely to do much better than the new crop of radicals.

Both positions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of American voters. If Democrats focus exclusively on either group, they are setting themselves up for failure. The only path to victory consists in mobilizing the base and in appealing to moderates. But the way to increase turnout among disaffected Democratic voters is very different from what the left advocates, and the way to win over swing voters has little to do with what traditional moderates assume.

The standard narrative about American politics divides the country into two extreme camps. The left is predominantly young, female, and brown, black, or Asian. The right is predominantly old, male, and white. But as the authors of “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” show, this is simply wrong.

If you only know whether somebody identifies as liberal or conservative or whether they vote for Democrats or Republicans, you will do a surprisingly poor job of predicting their social and economic attitudes. If you only know somebody’s age or race, you will do even worse. Instead, Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon of More in Common, an organization devoted to combating polarization in developed democracies, argue it is much more instructive to learn which of the seven different political tribes making up contemporary America a person belongs to: progressive activists, traditional liberals, passive liberals, the politically disengaged, moderates, traditional conservatives, and devoted conservatives.

The progressive activists, the traditional liberals, and the passive liberals make up the core of the Democrats’ coalition. The devoted conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the politically disengaged make up the core of Donald Trump’s coalition. Swing voters tend to be clustered among the moderates. Understanding these tribes is the key to understanding what a viable electoral strategy might look like. So which of these tribes would a strategy of mobilization need to reach? Which is the best audience for a politics of persuasion? And are the two compatible?

When strategists on the left of the party talk about increasing turnout, they usually mean that Democrats should focus on a group of young people of color whom they imagine to be highly critical of capitalism, to have consistently liberal views on race and gender, and to be very attuned to the latest cultural battles. But according to the data revealed by “Hidden Tribes,” this group doesn’t exist.

Instead, the group that leftist strategists consider the key to Democrats’ success is an amalgam of two very distinct tribes. The first is that of “progressive activists.” This tribe does have consistently liberal views on cultural and economic issues. But for a host of reasons, it is the wrong audience for a strategy of mobilization: It is one of the smallest tribes, making up only 8 percent of the overall population. It is already extremely engaged in politics and highly supportive of Democratic candidates. And, most importantly of all, it is not the demographically and socioeconomically diverse group leftist strategists usually have in mind when they talk about mobilizing the base: Members of this tribe are twice as likely to earn at least $100,000 than the average American, and three times as likely to have gone to graduate school. Far from being especially diverse, they are unusually homogeneous. In fact, only 3 percent of progressive activists are black. 80 percent—far more than in the electorate at large—are white.

So while it is indeed important for any Democratic candidate to retain the support of this group, this is not the pool of voters that stayed home in 2016 or could add a significant number of votes to the Democratic column in 2020. Even on the extremely unrealistic assumption that none of the people of color in the progressive activist tribe had voted two years ago, and that an inspiring progressive presidential candidate could mobilize all of them two years hence, he or she would only add 1.6 percent of the electorate to the Democratic column.

The second group is a much better prospect for “turning out the base.” This is the 15 percent of Americans who belong to the tribe of “passive liberals.” Disproportionately young, female, poor, and drawn from minority communities, members of this group tend to be reasonably tolerant, have relatively liberal views on issues like immigration, and seek a greater role for the state in areas like health care. They are deeply disconcerted by Trump and are looking for candidates who promise to stand up for their interests. They feel deeply disempowered and are far less likely to have voted in 2016 than progressive activists. So if a candidate managed to turn out a greater proportion of this much larger group, they would potentially add many millions of voters to their column.

But to do that, candidates first need to understand just how different the views of “passive liberals” are from those of “progressive activists.” In fact, passive liberals are deeply averse to displays of political anger, with 86 percent saying that they like to “avoid arguments” about politics. Like the American population at large, many of them are highly critical of political correctness, with four out of five subscribing to the sentiment that it has now become “a problem in our country.” And though a lot of members of this tribe worry about racial bias, many seek a strong presence of law enforcement and border protection, with one in two saying that the world is “becoming a more dangerous place.”

What’s more, passive liberals seek to lower rather than raise the temperature of politics. They are, for example, much more likely than progressive activists to say that politicians they support “need to be willing to listen to others and compromise.” As Jamal, a young black postal worker in North Carolina, said during an in-depth interview for the study, one of the biggest problems now facing America is that we are “tearing ourselves apart.” While he has, in general, grown skeptical of politicians, he hopes for a candidate who can broker a constructive compromise on the issues that are most important to him: “I don’t think we are so divided that we cannot come to a solution on the basics.”

If leftist strategists tend to be fundamentally misguided in their understanding of the voters they need to mobilize the base, moderate strategists are equally misguided in their understanding of the voters they need to persuade the wavering middle.

“Hidden Tribes” shows that there really is a large part of the population that is open to persuasion. In fact, true “moderates” represent about the same proportion of the population as “passive liberals”: 15 percent. Even better, there are reasons to think that they are particularly ripe for the plucking at the moment. Strongly opposed to Donald Trump, members of this group are especially likely to believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and they are particularly upset about the quality of the current leadership in the country.

Now, on certain questions, these moderates really are as milquetoast as centrist strategists imagine. They are even more strongly opposed to political correctness than average Americans, with nine out of ten saying that it has become a problem in the country. (In the general population, it is 80 percent.) They are even more strongly opposed to affirmative action than average Americans, with nine in ten saying that race should not be a factor in college admissions. (In the general population, it is 85 percent.) And seven out of ten believe that hard work, rather than luck, determines how successful somebody is in life. (In the general population, it is 54 percent.)

But on other issues, moderates are much more aligned with basic Democratic positions. Indeed, they are more likely than most Americans to believe that immigration is good for the country, are worried about sexual harassment, want to improve the treatment of illegal immigrants, and recognize police violence against African Americans as a real problem. As one would expect in a group that is so convinced that the country is currently headed in the wrong direction, they are also desperate for substantive change rather than piecemeal reform. Deeply unhappy with the state of the health care system, they support economic policies that help the poor so long as they are presented as enhancing, rather than undercutting, personal responsibility.

The fact that strategists’ common assumptions about the American population are so wrong presents Democrats with an acute danger: If they keep having the same old debate without recognizing that both sides of it are fundamentally mistaken, they are headed for big trouble in 2020. But it also opens up a huge opportunity—for despite their considerable differences, the voters Democrats need to reach to mobilize the base and those they need to reach to persuade moderates have much more in common than the usual shouting match would imply. In fact, on both economic and cultural issues, the data suggest a grand synthesis, which combines the best elements of the left and moderate traditions.

On the economy, neither moderates nor passive liberals have much appetite for fundamental attacks on capitalism. Moderates actively like markets. Passive liberals are focused on concrete issues like paying their rent or getting health insurance, and instinctively skeptical of grand designs to transform the world. Loud talk about democratic socialism isn’t attractive to either group.

At the same time, both moderates and passive liberals are open to bold action in those areas of the economy and the welfare state that they see as being particularly dysfunctional. In fact, they are both opposed to crony capitalism and feel that big corporations are getting unfair advantages. And they are both desperate for a better solution on health care. As Jake Sullivan, who headed foreign policy for the Hillary Clinton campaign, persuasively argued a few months ago, this presents Democrats with a real opening to pursue an ambitious economic program that goes beyond the policies they championed in 2016—especially if, like Elizabeth Warren, they sell these measures in the spirit of saving, rather than attacking, capitalism.

Similarly, on cultural issues, neither moderates nor passive liberals have much appetite for rhetoric that casts race, gender, or sexuality as a fundamental dividing line of American politics. Both groups worry that political correctness has become a way for the highly educated or overly ideological to shame ordinary Americans for their ignorance or their values. Both groups overwhelmingly believe that race should not be a factor in college admissions. And both groups worry not only about police prejudice but also about crime rates.

At the same time, both moderates and passive liberals are open to a principled attack on discrimination and racial injustice. When they feel that politicians make targeted promises to particular identity groups, they balk. But when politicians call on America to remedy unfair practices in the name of the country’s shared ideals, they get on board. So the data suggest that Democratic politicians need not worry about how much they are standing up to Trump on the ways in which the administration is attacking minority groups; instead, they need to worry much more about how to do so in terms that cast this fight in the universal language of equality and civil rights.

I realize that all of this may sound complicated, abstract, or simply unrealistic. How should a Democratic candidate pull off the incredible feat of mobilizing the base and persuading swing voters—all the while reconciling two tribes that are, on the face of it, pretty different from one another? But the truth of the matter is that my prescription is, in the end, neither particularly outlandish nor especially novel. On the contrary, it is the playbook that got Barack Obama elected president of the United States twice in a row.