This is in large part because the whites who are members of the Democratic Party have changed. Non-college-educated whites have shrunk as a portion of the base by 20 percent, versus big gains from voters with at least a four-year degree, both white and nonwhite. The better educated voters are, the more likely they are to be more liberal. Assuming the party continues to change demographically the way it has, it’s likely to get only more liberal.
“I think there’s a significant shift,” says Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future and an adviser to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. “You can see it in the war of ideas, where more and more Democrats at least nod their heads at Medicare for all. You even have President Obama saying it’s time for big ideas like Medicare for all and a jobs guarantee.”
If anything, the party’s candidates still appear to be to the right of the base—at the least candidates who win nominations. Brookings’s Primaries Project recorded the astonishing growth in the number of Democrats running for House seats this year—1,077, up from 646 in 2014 and 700 in 2016. (In contrast, the number of GOP candidates rose from 755 four years ago to 874 this year, a much more gradual increase.) Brookings’s Elaine Kamarck and Alexander R. Podkul categorized these Democrats as either “progressives” or “establishment” Democrats and found a roughly equal share of candidates. (Moderates compose a small and shrinking third wheel.)
That meant that a greater number of incumbent Democrats, many of them more establishment, faced primaries—45 percent, up from fewer than 28 percent in 2014. Yet despite the understandable attention paid to wins by Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who defeated Representative Mike Capuano in a Boston-area district, most of the challenges fell short. According to the Primaries Project, “Compared to 2016, primary elections this cycle were actually slightly less competitive for incumbents.” Kamarck notes that efforts by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while widely derided by progressives, had their desired effect of nominating establishment-backed candidates in close districts, with a 39-for-41 record.
Furthermore, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley will both replace reliably progressive votes in the House, so while both are women of color and therefore more in step with the Democratic Party’s evolving demographics, they’re likely to end up largely the same on the issues. Otherwise, Brookings found, progressive candidates were more likely than their establishment colleagues to win nominations in more strongly leaning Republican districts—meaning that anything short of a blue tsunami is likely to leave them high, dry, and at home.
“Six months ago, a lot of Democrats were worried that the process was going to make the task of regaining the majority in the House more difficult by nominating some candidates in swing districts who were too progressive for those districts,” says Bill Galston, a colleague of Kamarck’s both at Brookings and in the Clinton White House. That hasn’t been the case, he says. “Progressive victories have been scored in places where almost any Democrat would be the odds-on favorite to win,” like in Ocasio-Cortez’s district.