The Democratic Primary Is About to Get a Center Lane

But where it goes, no one knows.

Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown, flanked by a blue lane of traffic on the left and a red lane of traffic on the right.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar declared her 2020 candidacy over the weekend. Sen. Sherrod Brown is also expected to run. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images and Pete Marovich/Getty Images.

The early days of 2019—which is to say, the early days of the 2020 campaign—have been dominated by the Democratic Party’s left wing. Early big-name entrants Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand were all quick to plant their flags squarely on progressive soil. Most tellingly, all four support Bernie Sanders–style Medicare for all and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, two issues that have emerged as the biggest intraparty litmus tests for the primary season.

Don’t expect that early consensus to last, however, as other top-tier candidates begin to officially enter the fray, as was the case last weekend with Amy Klobuchar’s formal campaign launch. The Minnesota senator is banking on her relatively moderate politics and Midwestern roots to help her stand out in a field that is currently clustered on the progressive end of the spectrum. Sherrod Brown, who spent the weekend in New Hampshire testing out his potential campaign message, is plotting a similar path to the nomination. Joe Biden has long had the same kind of route in mind should he decide to run. Other could-be candidates, from Michael Bloomberg to Beto O’Rourke, are likely to veer toward the center in interesting ways as well.

In this way, the center lane is starting to take shape. If you watch long enough, though, you’ll spot these candidates weaving in and out of the left lane. Indeed, how and when they shift between the two will be as illuminating as which one they decided to start in.

Consider Klobuchar: She is now the most high-profile candidate in the race who has not signed on to Sanders’ Medicare for all effort, instead voicing her support for more incremental expansions in Medicare. And yet she is a Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, which lists universal health care as one of its goals. Notably, Klobuchar avoided mentioning the nonbinding resolution by name during her Sunday kickoff speech in the Minnesota snow, instead promising to reinstate and reinforce the Obama-era climate rules Donald Trump has rolled back. But with Mitch McConnell planning on holding a show vote on the Green New Deal in the Senate, Klobuchar may soon have to choose between the smaller measures she prefers and the far more sweeping effort she also says she supports.

Or consider Brown, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Klobuchar given they both can boast of winning big in Midwestern swing states, ostensibly giving them a leg up with the white, working-class voters who helped propel Trump to the White House. Brown has not yet launched his campaign, but he’s spent the weekend in the Granite State with his left-turn signal blinking—touting his past opposition to free trade deals, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Iraq war. But by Tuesday, he was back in Washington pointedly declining to endorse either Medicare for all or the Green New Deal. “I don’t need to co-sponsor every bill that others think they need to co-sponsor to show my progressive politics,” he said. “I know the easy thing to do is say, ‘Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes,’ but I don’t know that that serves my constituents.”

Brown isn’t sitting out the Medicare debate entirely, and his position illustrates the difficulty of trying to straddle both lanes. “It’s easy to say ‘Medicare for all’ and make a good speech, but see no action,” he said last month. Instead, he’s pushing to expand access to Medicare more slowly. Among the options he supports is opening the program up to retiring police and firefighters. The idea has its merits—many first responders retire before 65, so they face a gap in health coverage—and it’s one that seems tailor-made to appeal to a subset of (white) voters who aren’t currently part of the Democratic base. But it’s also easy to see why such a pro-police plan infuriates progressives who see Brown effectively prioritizing cops over disadvantaged communities with even less access to health care coverage. How forcefully Brown decides to defend that plan on the stump will tell us a lot about the path he’s plotted out.

It’s worth remembering that no single lane leads to the on-ramp for the nomination. Just as candidates shift between lanes, so too do voters. There’s little to suggest, for instance, that supporters will move en masse from one candidate to another in the same lane if their preferred pick stalls out. The 2016 Republican primary made it painfully clear that elections just don’t work that way. The GOP spent more than a year hoping against hope that someone, anyone, could consolidate establishment support and defeat Donald Trump. But Trump’s support continued to grow even as each establishment-friendly candidate dropped out. In hindsight, maybe that should have been obvious given that early polls found that Jeb Bush’s fans were most likely to name Trump as their second choice, and vice versa.

Already we’re seeing something similar play out this time around. In Morning Consult’s latest poll of a hypothetical 2020 field, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders sit first and second, at 29 percent and 22 percent respectively. The two men are clearly on opposite sides of the Democratic ideological spectrum, and yet their supporters are more likely to name the other as their second choice than any of the other 17 options. While polling this far out signifies more about name recognition than whom voters will ultimately support, it’s nonetheless striking that so many voters embrace both men.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is the fact that Democratic voters, at least for now, are focused on denying Trump another term in office. Monmouth University pollsters found that Democrats say they are more interested in perceived electability than in ideological purity. More than half (56 percent) of Democrats said they’d prefer someone who could be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues, compared with just 33 percent who said the opposite. A CNN poll released a few days later told a similar story.

Such polls leave unanswered the larger questions of what, exactly, those voters believe make a candidate better suited to take on Trump. The conversation about electability can get tautological quickly, as 2016 once again made clear: Hillary Clinton was electable until she wasn’t; Donald Trump was not electable until he was. So when candidates in the center lane proclaim that their moderate stances bestow them with electability, it rings hollow this far out, before we even know what kind of candidate voters are seeking to elect. The early maneuvering in the Democratic field can’t tell us which candidate is most likely to end up in the White House; it tells us only which lane each candidate believes is most likely to lead them to it. Keep an eye out for how many primary voters come along for the ride.