The Slatest

Are Out-of-Touch Twitter Leftists Controlling the Democratic Primary? (No.)

Sanders gestures in fiery fashion while speaking at a lectern with the Capitol dome behind him.
Bernie Sanders with (from left) Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal on Capitol Hill on June 24.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A new idea has taken hold in certain parts of the Democratic Party and the political press. Here’s an anonymous Joe Biden ally quoted approvingly in a Politico article by Ryan Lizza last week:

The well-known Democrat said of the Biden press corps, “They view this party as dominated by woke millennials and through the lens of coastal issues. They are products, increasingly, of fairly elite schools and they don’t talk to a lot of voters who don’t look and talk like them.” … They are, this person argued, obsessed with a Democratic Party that exists only on Twitter. She pointedly noted that there are Democrats “outside of those 18,000 voters in Queens,” referring to the total vote share—it was actually closer to 17,000—for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her June 2018 primary victory.

And here’s New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait on Friday:

Here is a science-fiction scenario: Imagine a strange new virus that incapacitates everybody below the age of 75 … The virus is Twitter … The field was racing left, treating the consensus on progressive Twitter as though it were a simulacrum of the real Democratic Party … [Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign] seemed to be positioning the candidate to be elected President of Twitter … [Kamala Harris and Cory Booker] devoted most of the time between their launch and the Iowa caucuses trying to avoid getting dragged on Twitter … Biden’s lack of awareness of Twitter may be to his benefit.

And here’s the Atlantic’s George Packer, quoting Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett approvingly on Monday:

“The Twitter universe has decided that Medicare for All is what we are about, and the Green New Deal,” he said. “The Twitter base of the Democratic Party decides what’s important, not the actual base. The actual base of the Democratic Party are a bunch of people that have never, ever, ever engaged with a politician on Twitter. They are the people we met with today [at an Iowa preschool] who are teaching school. Those women are invisible to cable television. The children that are in that school are invisible to cable television, and invisible to the Twitter universe.”

Twitter leftism—what’s its deal? How did it zombie-brainwash both Democratic primary candidates and the reporters covering them into thinking that Democratic voters have become full-on Che Guevara T-shirt radicals when in fact they’re still humble, technologically illiterate peasants who believe in the modest middle-way politics espoused by salt-of-the-earth, finger-on-the-pulse average Joes like Rahm Emanuel?

The truth, in fact, is that this did not happen. And to understand the extent to which it has not happened, you can start by looking at the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states in which voters have the best opportunity to make judgments about whom to support based on familiarity rather than ambient national media buzz. Averaging together the RealClearPolitics aggregates from those states, here’s what you get:

• Joe Biden, 26 percent
• Bernie Sanders, 20 percent
• Elizabeth Warren, 19 percent
• Pete Buttigieg, 8 percent
• Kamala Harris, 8 percent

Support for the avowedly-more-centrist candidates, Biden and Buttigieg, totals 34 percent, while support for the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, totals 39 percent. (Harris, it’s true, embraces some positions that appeal to the activist left, like impeaching Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but those aren’t exclusively ideological and also appeal to more moderate but highly partisan Dems. And for what it’s worth, Buttigieg has been the subject of many more “wow, this guy is an impressive candidate who’s going places” pieces written by fancy-pants big-city political journalists during this cycle than Sanders.) In Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are generally not thought of as being dominated by snobby elites, slightly more rank-and-file Democrats currently support Sanders and Warren than the major candidates who are not woke communists.

Meanwhile, Gillibrand—the candidate who, as Chait says, seems to have pandered hardest to hardcore social media users—is polling at 0 in these states, because her campaign was a flop and she dropped out. He suggests that this demonstrates the folly of playing to the Twitter crowd. Maybe so! But then why are the other progressives, who are also supposedly captured by Twitter, still going strong? Perhaps there’s something more substantive going on with the successful progressive candidates than their mere appeal to shouty online types.

If you break down Sanders’ and Warren’s support in national polls, it becomes clear that this is true and that their “bases” comprise normal humans in addition to internet humans. Sanders does very well with voters who have lower incomes, relatively little education, and relatively little interest in following political news on a day-to-day basis; he’s also strong this time around with black voters as a whole and, at least at one point, led Biden among Latino voters. Warren, meanwhile, is disproportionately popular with women and older people—if you sort polling results by age and gender at the same time, you find that she’s strongest with women 55 and older, confirming on-the-ground reporting that has suggested that many of her core supporters are women who also supported and identified with Hillary Clinton. If several of the female preschool staffers cited in the Atlantic/Packer article above don’t end up voting for Warren, I will eat Green Eggs and Ham. (And contra Bennett/Packer’s claim that the these women are tragically offline and invisible, one of the individuals named in the piece has a Twitter account that has “liked” Democratic politicians’ tweets in the past, while another has testified at a congressional “field hearing.”)

To believe that young, affluent, well-educated, disproportionately white journalists and social media users are influencing the primary to a potentially catastrophic degree, you have to believe that they’re doing so in large part by exerting that influence over the voters who are most different from them demographically—and, in the case of Clinton/Warren supporters, the voters who supported the candidate whom internet hipsters didn’t like during the last cycle.

There’s a simpler explanation, though, which is that Sanders and Warren are proposing, for the most part, ideas that have significant actual support among ordinary Democrats. Even the polling Chait himself cites to show that single-payer “Medicare for All” is an electoral liability says that 64 percent of Democrats support the idea; an even more recent survey, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 76 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Americans as a whole have a favorable view of single payer. The point, which is often elided by those making the case for centrism, is that while a “public option” approach is more popular than single payer because it wouldn’t eliminate private insurance, the concept of single payer is also popular, especially among Democrats. (Barack Obama, who remains the most popular Democrat and pundits’ walking definition of the party’s mainstream, praised “Medicare for All” in a 2018 speech, during which he also made approving mention of “debt-free college” proposals, which several progressive-wing candidates—but not “responsible” centrists like Biden and Amy Klobuchar—have backed during this cycle.)

This broad willingness to consider progressive ideas also shows up when you consider voters’ second-choice candidates: A plurality of Biden supporters likes Sanders next-best, and a plurality of Buttigieg supporters feels the same way about Warren. If anything, the evidence in the polls suggests that primary voters are punishing the kinds of candidates who get left-activist buzz: General-election “electability” continues to be the trait that Dems say they are looking for most in a candidate, and Biden—the anti-Twitter candidate, according to all three articles above—is the one they think is the most electable. When one group of pollsters conducted a survey in which they explicitly told respondents not to consider electability, Biden’s advantage disappeared.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the primary, there is an verifiably large group of people in the “real Democratic party”—numbering in the tens of millions, and composed of many types of people besides grad school SJW twentysomethings—who are willing to support a strong progressive platform. So what explains Lizza, Chait, and Packer’s belief that such views could only be held by sworn members of the Twitter PC police? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they all come from a centrist D.C./New York intellectual tradition—neoliberal on domestic policy, neoconservative on foreign policy, “classically liberal” on issues of speech and civics—that is, in fact, involved in an extended existential battle with hardcore socialists, who often target Lizza, Chait, and Packer in particular for derision. When you’re persistently inundated online by people with rose DSA icons calling you names like “binch” and “corncob,” it’s understandable that they might start to drive you crazy and take on disproportionate explanatory power in your imagination. But that’s why you’ve just got to get out of your bubble sometimes.