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Democratic primary voters haven’t kept up with party’s lurch to the left

Biden gets boost from ‘somewhat liberal’ or moderate voters, but is he further left than he needs to be for the fall?

Super Tuesday is over. And by the time you read this, “mini” Super Tuesday will be history as well. With a number of primaries under our belt, have we learned anything new about Democratic voters that has the potential to affect the fall election?

A deeper dive into the exit polls gives us the following key takeaways:

‘Somewhat liberal’ Democratic voters are key to Biden’s lead

We know that the Democratic Party has moved substantially to the left over the last decade. In previous columns, I pointed out that according to exit polls, in 2006, Democrats in the aggregate defined themselves as moderate-to-liberal by a margin of 51-38 percent, but by 2018, those numbers had flipped with 51 percent now identifying as liberal and 38 percent as moderate. Nancy Pelosi was leader then and now, but she is leading two very different caucuses.

But it’s also worth noting that the 51 percent calling themselves liberal is made up of two groups — “very liberal” and “somewhat liberal.” It’s the difference between Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both see themselves as liberals, but their definition of progressive policies are very different. That’s an important distinction that rarely makes most news analyses.

I’m not saying “somewhat liberal” voters are necessarily centrists. They’re not. In fact, they have become more liberal over time. But these two groups of liberal voters don’t vote in lockstep nor do they always support the same policies.  “Medicare for All’ and the Green New Deal are two good examples. 

So perhaps the most important takeaway from the Super Tuesday results is that the Democratic Party today is dominated in the voting booth by people who think of themselves as somewhat liberal (the largest group) or moderate. Very liberal Democrats who live in Twitter world or many in the halls of Congress may enjoy a louder national megaphone, but the Democratic primary numbers tell a different story.

The exit polls in the Super Tuesday and South Carolina contests paint a clear picture of Joe Biden’s winning strategy: He appealed to voters who saw themselves as somewhat liberal, winning that group in 10 of the 13 contests in which there were exit polls. 

Overall, somewhat liberal voters in those states accounted for 35.5 percent of the vote. Take a look at Virginia. Though Bernie Sanders won “very liberal” voters by 4 points, Biden won among “somewhat” liberals 50-22 percent, a more than 2-to-1 margin. For some context, this group made up 34 percent of the state’s Democratic primary vote, while very liberal voters only constituted 19 percent. Biden also won moderates in every state but Vermont.   

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Democratic voters yearn for the Obama past, not socialism

The Democratic Party and its presidential field have spent the last year in a race so far to the left that whoever wins the nomination in the end, Biden or Sanders, will likely be stuck with a policy agenda out of step with centrist voters — the moderates and independents who will likely be the decisive vote this fall.

The divide within the liberal community is helping Biden take the lead now. He is likely to be told that to win over the very liberal crowd, he has to do exactly what one Democratic strategist, Jim Manley, told The Washington Post on the day Biden announced his climate change plan: “They’ve needed to start throwing down some solid policies that will appease the left.”

Appeasement may help with the very liberal base, but for the general election, it may well be a different story.   

The irony is, of course, that exit polls show Democratic voters are much more interested in a return to the past than a progressive lurch into the future. Democratic voters were given a choice to change to more liberal policies, return to Obama’s policies or change to more conservative policies.

In every state on Super Tuesday, with the exception of Vermont and Maine, a return to Obama policies won the day among Democrats.  Ironically, more and more, agreeing with Obama is seen as being a moderate in this leftist party, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Biden talks a lot about what he calls the Obama-Biden legacy, but some of his proposals and promises are geared toward satisfying the most liberal and loudest members of his party. 

Bernie wins the Twitter vote

Finally, the Super Tuesday results have prompted a lot of speculation and some interesting questions about everything from candidate and campaign strengths to policy differences and ideological positioning. But there’s one question that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention and maybe should.

Does Twitter influence voters to be very liberal or are self-defined very liberal voters simply creatures of the social universe, especially Twitter? Up to now, we haven’t had hard data to give us a lot of insight into this question. But after Super Tuesday, we have some interesting initial findings worth throwing into the ongoing debate about Twitter’s power and reach in the political arena.

In North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, people were asked whether they used Twitter and Facebook to get their political news. Overwhelmingly, people said no. But of those who did use Twitter for political information, Sanders was the big vote-getter. And yet he lost all three states. One of the latest talking points we’re hearing from the media and some Democratic pundits is that Twitter doesn’t represent where the Democratic Party is really at.

They may be right, but there’s no denying it drives political discourse and media coverage. And if the Democratic presidential candidates are any indication, it’s pushing party policies to the radical left.

But the primaries are showing that the center of gravity in the party is still with somewhat liberal voters and moderates.

The question is, does that still leave Biden further to the left than he needs to be for the fall election?

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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