Do Democrats Want a Centrist or a Lefty?

Iowa and New Hampshire have sent a clear answer: yes.

Bernie Sanders laughs uproariously.
The front-runner.
Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Should Democrats be the party of the left, or should they tack toward the center? It’s an old debate, but in this year’s Democratic presidential race, it has a new twist: Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has captured the most votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Centrists say Sanders doesn’t represent the party, because more people voted for the three moderate candidates—Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—than for Sanders and his ally on the left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Who’s right?

There are a lot of ways to try to answer that question. Let’s start with the metric most people are using: Who’s getting more votes? In Iowa, on the “first alignment”—the vote that was taken before many caucus-goers had to switch to their second or third choices—43 percent chose Sanders or Warren. Forty-nine percent chose Buttigieg, Biden, or Klobuchar. Andrew Yang, a businessman, got 5 percent, and everybody else got peanuts. That’s a slight plurality for the centrists. In New Hampshire, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden got 53 percent of the vote, while Sanders and Warren got 35 percent. (The remaining 12 points were largely divided among Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and businessman Tom Steyer.)

That looks good for the centrists. But even if Buttigieg and Sanders can be reasonably slotted into their respective positions of centrist and leftist, voters can’t be. Voting for Buttigieg doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a centrist, any more than voting for Sanders requires you to be a leftist. According to the New Hampshire exit poll, 19 percent of voters who called themselves moderate or conservative went for Sanders or Warren, while 30 percent of those who called themselves very liberal went for Buttigieg, Biden, or Klobuchar. So if you classify everyone who voted for the “centrists” as a centrist, you’re short-changing the left.

Policy alignment isn’t the only thing that influences voting. Perceptions of a candidate’s “electability” are usually a factor. Many people, instead of voting for the candidate they wanted, voted for the candidate they thought other people wanted. In both states, more than 60 percent of voters said it was more important to nominate a candidate who could beat Trump than to nominate one who agreed with them on the issues. And about 60 percent of these electability-oriented voters threw their support to Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Biden.

If you take those voters out of the equation and look only at voters who focused on choosing a candidate based on issues, Sanders and Warren got a 53 percent majority in Iowa and a 44 percent plurality in New Hampshire. That seems to prove that Democrats, in their hearts, prefer the left. But it doesn’t, because people who prefer moderation are more likely to focus on electability than are people who want radical change. So if you remove electability-oriented voters from the calculation, you’re stripping out more centrists than leftists, which isn’t really fair.

Maybe it’s simpler to categorize voters the way they categorize themselves. In Iowa, 25 percent of caucus-goers said they were very liberal, 42 percent said they were somewhat liberal, 30 percent said they were moderate, and 2 percent said they were conservative. In New Hampshire, 21 percent of voters said they were very liberal, 40 percent said they were somewhat liberal, 35 percent said they were moderate, and 4 percent said they were conservative. So in each state, more than 60 percent called themselves liberal. Does that settle the question?

No, because the results were probably affected by how the question was asked. If you give respondents a range of options, people who prefer to be in the middle tend to choose one of the middle options. In the Iowa entrance poll and the New Hampshire exit poll, “somewhat liberal” was one of the two middle options. That could be why it was the most popular choice. In fact, in both states, most voters who called themselves “somewhat liberal” went for Buttigieg, Biden, or Klobuchar, the ostensibly centrist candidates.

It’s hard to know what each person means by “moderate” or “somewhat liberal.” So let’s try an objective standard instead. The New Hampshire exit poll asked voters in the Democratic primary whether the next president should “return to Barack Obama’s policies,” “change to more liberal policies,” or “change to more conservative policies.” Three times as many voters chose “more liberal policies” (39 percent) as chose “more conservative policies” (12 percent). But 40 percent chose Obama’s policies. So although the numbers lean to the left, you could also read them as a 52 percent majority against going further than Obama.

One question in the New Hampshire exit poll bears directly on Sanders. The survey asked voters in the Democratic primary whether each candidate’s positions were too liberal, not liberal enough, or about right. Two-thirds said Buttigieg was about right; only 6 percent said he was too liberal. But 40 percent said Warren was too liberal, and a 50 percent plurality said Sanders was too liberal. If half the voters in the Democratic primary think Sanders is too far to the left, that seems damning.

Before you draw that conclusion, consider two things. First, lots of people who voted in that primary weren’t Democrats. In Iowa, 22 percent of people who participated in the Democratic contest identified themselves as independents. In New Hampshire, the figure was 45 percent. And the independents in New Hampshire were more conservative than the independents in Iowa; they voted more for the centrist candidates than for Sanders or Warren. These centrist independents may have artificially inflated the percentage of Democratic primary voters who rejected Sanders as too liberal.

Second, Sanders does better when you ask about his policies than when you ask about his ideology. In both states, by about 20 percentage points (57 percent to 38 percent in Iowa, 58 percent to 37 percent in New Hampshire), most voters endorsed “replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone.” In New Hampshire, the exit poll also asked about “making tuition free at public colleges and universities.” Two-thirds of voters in the Democratic primary supported that idea; only 28 percent opposed it.

None of these numbers settles the debate. No matter which side you’re on, you can find a metric that supports your view. And so far, we’ve only heard from voters in two of the whitest states in the country. As more diverse states vote, we’ll have a bigger, broader pool of data for Democrats to argue about. And they will. Because regardless of whether they’re leftists or centrists, that’s what Democrats do.