The midterm elections did not give Democrats a singular leader to rally behind, nor did it settle ideological divides in the party. But the results can tell us a lot about the mood among Democratic voters, and what they might be looking for in a 2020 presidential nominee.
First, much hay has been made about the choice between progressives on one hand and moderates or “centrists” on the other. You could read the midterms results as vindication for the latter; outspoken progressives like Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District and Leslie Cockburn in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District fell short, while a large number of self-described moderate Democrats flipped Republican-held seats in contests across the country.
A few facts complicate that analysis. First, aggressive, left-wing candidates had huge success in toppling Democratic incumbents in House and statewide primaries, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, to Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous in the Florida and Maryland gubernatorial races.* Given the choice between “establishment” Democrats and progressive insurgents, many Democratic voters chose the latter in their primaries.
What’s more, candidates like Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Beto O’Rourke of Texas may have fallen short, but the progressive energy behind their campaigns pulled other Democrats in those states across the finish line. Base expansion and mobilization may not have been enough to win in 2018, but those candidates closed substantial gaps and have set the stage for future success.
There’s also the question of “moderation” itself. Moderate is a relative term; its placement depends on the larger, constantly moving picture. Democrat Max Rose ran as a moderate in his successful bid for the 11th District of New York, which includes Staten Island and went for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Rose emphasized his military service—the 31-year-old is a veteran of Afghanistan—and distanced himself from national Democratic leadership, going as far as saying he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House. He rejected Medicare for all.
But his “centrism” reflects a Democratic Party that has moved to the left since it last held the House of Representatives. Rose’s “top priorities” for health care include a “public option” for insurance and a Medicare expansion that lowers the eligibility age to 55. Had he served in the 111th Congress, which passed the Affordable Care Act, this position would have put him to the left of the median Democrat and in line with the views of the House Progressive Caucus. While progressive candidates may have lost races on Election Day, Democratic voters have clearly moved to the left, and they expect their candidates to do the same.
Democratic primary voters are still moving in the two directions shown in their choices in the 2016 presidential race. Reflecting the influence of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, they want unambiguously progressive policies. The incrementalism of Hillary Clinton’s campaign has not worn well in the face of a radical, right-wing Republican presidency. And yet, Democrats still want to make history and elevate candidates from marginal and underrepresented groups. Instead of reacting to President Trump’s misogyny and racism by favoring male candidates, Democratic voters are leaning into the multicultural and multiracial nature of their coalition, facing the president’s exclusionary rhetoric with a spirit of inclusion.
Democrats’ desire for diversity is increasingly apparent. Democratic voters nominated an unprecedented 180 female candidates in House primaries, as well as 133 people of color, including Native American and Muslim American candidates. Democrats also nominated 21 openly LGBT candidates for Congress. For the first time in the party’s history, white men were a minority in the House Democratic candidate pool. And while election officials are still tallying votes in several states, the Democrats’ incoming class of House members reflects the diversity of their candidate pool.
This thirst for diversity extended to statewide races. Democrats nominated black candidates for governor in Florida, Georgia, and Maryland, for lieutenant governor in Michigan, for attorney general in Nevada and Illinois, and for Senate in Mississippi. The incoming senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, is openly bisexual, and the governor-elect of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, is Latina. In CNN’s exit polls, 65 percent of voters who valued electing racial and ethnic minorities and 66 percent of voters who valued electing women backed Democratic candidates. It helps explain the striking success of nonwhite candidates in predominantly white districts, like Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Lucy McBath of Georgia, or Antonio Delgado of New York.
All of this brings obvious takeaways for the 2020 presidential race. Calls for Democrats to nominate Beto O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown make sense—these are talented, charismatic politicians who might improve the party’s appeal with downscale whites. But they ignore or don’t take seriously the clear preference for diverse candidates among Democratic primary voters. Assuming they run, their odds of winning aren’t low—Sanders was the runner-up in 2016 and Biden is a popular figure in the party—but they aren’t as high as they might appear either.
The opposite is true for the cohort of white women and people of color who are clearly in the race for president. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren may have stumbled with her attempt to settle questions about her heritage, but she’s still in the running. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota may be unknown on the national stage, but they are skilled politicians with demonstrated appeal to rural and working-class whites. The same is true for Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who hasn’t made the same moves toward running as her peers but who might appeal to Democratic primary voters for her progressive politics, clear appeal to working-class whites (she won 60 percent of white union households in her re-election bid this year), and history-making potential: She would be the first openly LGBTQ president.
If there’s anyone who sits at the intersection of what Democratic voters seem to want in a candidate, it’s Sen. Kamala Harris of California. A nonwhite woman, she looks like the most active and loyal parts of the Democratic base. A black woman with South Asian heritage, she would make history as president. She’s close to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (but not so progressive that she doesn’t have real opposition on the left, tied to her controversial record as state attorney general) and has built herself up as a tough, unapologetic opponent of the administration (although she has voted for some of Trump’s nominees). Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, likewise, would satisfy an apparently strong desire from Democratic voters to elevate a candidate of color to the White House. (This desire is why you also shouldn’t dismiss former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is also considering a bid for the nomination and has support from top Obama allies.)
With all of that said, the very fact of a President Donald Trump should inspire humility about our ability to forecast or predict electoral outcomes. The midterm elections offer strong signals about what Democratic primary voters might want in a presidential nominee, but there’s no way to know how these candidates will perform once they hit the trail. Indeed, there’s no way to answer the only question that really matters for the 2020 race—who can beat Trump?
Correction, Nov. 20, 2018: This story originally misidentified Deb Haaland as someone who had successfully challenged the Democratic incumbent in her congressional district. The incumbent had not rerun for that office.