Will Clinton Move to the Center? Don’t Bet on It.

(Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Digital Content Creators Town Hall in Los Angeles on June 28.

Conventional wisdom on the left holds that Hillary Clinton is poised to tack right as she moves into the general election. “Triangulation,” after all, is the Clinton brand; the common view is that centrism must course through their veins.

But Clinton will almost certainly prove this view wrong, and not because big donors’ influence has waned, or because she’s a leftist at heart. The reality is that dramatic shifts in the American electorate and innovations in modern campaign strategies have made courting the center both inefficient and less effective. It’s not the 1990s anymore.

Not long ago, a majority of those who didn’t pay close attention to politics saw little difference between the two major parties, and genuine swing voters made up a significant share of the electorate. In the late 1960s, around 15 percent of voters would support a candidate from either major party, according to research by Corwin Smidt, a political scientist at Michigan State University. Those “floating voters” were the big prize for national campaigns—winning them over was a key path to victory.

But our bitter polarization has changed that picture. A tuned-out voter today is almost as likely to be aware of the parties’ differences as a highly engaged partisan was in 1980. And as the parties have grown further apart, and the differences between them have become more pronounced, the number of actual swing voters has declined precipitously. According to Smidt, when Bill Clinton first ran for the White House in the early 1990s, they still made up more than 10 percent of the electorate; today, only around 5 percent of voters are up for grabs.

Meanwhile, a new era of data collection and “micro-targeting” allows modern campaigns to identify their own voters, including unreliable ones, and get them out to the polls. “In terms of the cost-benefit analysis, the parties—and candidates—certainly see that it’s much easier to turn out people who agree with them, and who haven’t voted in the past, than it is to change someone’s mind,” Smidt told me in an interview last month. “And then there’s also the social question of how many of us are actually open to changing our minds?”

Stan Greenberg, a veteran public opinion researcher who conducted polling for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, downplayed the significance of micro-targeting, telling The American Prospect that “the deep data is like having a great field-goal kicker—it can help you win, but it doesn’t get you into scoring position. You have to get there with a strategy and a message.”

Nevertheless, Greenberg doesn’t expect Clinton to run to the center because, he says, it’s not a good strategy with today’s Democratic base. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he was trying to win back “Reagan Democrats”—disaffected white industrial workers whom he believed would be open to Democrats’ broader economic messages if the party embraced “government reform” broadly, and welfare reform specifically. It was a strategy suited to the political landscape of the time.

Today, Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and in the past two they did it with what’s been called the “Rising American Electorate”—African Americans, Latinos, urban and suburban college-educated whites, and unmarried women. According to Greenberg, those groups constituted 51 percent of voters in 2012, and he estimates that they’ll represent 53 percent of voters this year. But he also thinks that secular voters should be considered part of that new majority. Their inclusion, he says, expands the universe of voters who lean toward Democrats—and who are not moved by conservative messaging—to more like 64 percent of the electorate.

“If they are consolidated and voting in large numbers, then that gives you a huge election,” says Greenberg. “For me, step one is to consolidate those voters and energize those voters, and if you look at the margin right now, many of the Sanders voters and many of the millennial voters have not yet consolidated. So [Clinton] has gains to be made by energizing that broad progressive base.”

New data on polarization released this week by the Pew Research Center highlight why adopting Republican positions would be the worst way for Democrats to energize that base. “Across a number of realms, negative feelings about the opposing party are as powerful—and in many cases more powerful—as are positive feelings about one’s own party,” wrote the study’s authors.

Today, a majority of Democrats say they don’t just disagree with the Republican Party’s agenda—they’re afraid of it. And among independents who lean toward the Dems, many more say their votes reflect a negative view of the Republicans (51 percent) than a positive view of the Democrats (34 percent).

When Bill Clinton ran for president for the first time, only around four in ten Democrats held a negative view of the Republican Party. By 2012, that number had risen to almost eight in ten.

The Democrats’ base has also become more liberal in that time. In 1994, 30 percent of Democrats held views that were “mostly liberal” or “consistently Liberal,” according to a 2014 Pew study. Thirty years later, that share has almost doubled, to 56 percent of the party’s base. And for all we hear about independent voters, most of them are actually “closet partisans”—people who vote consistently for the same party, but don’t want to identify as a partisan for various reasons.

Having said all that, Donald Trump’s nomination represents a massive wild card. At this point, it looks like his bare-bones campaign is melting down. He’s raised a fraction of the funds necessary to run a national race, and so far hasn’t developed a data operation or coherent digital strategy beyond shouting at his enemies on Twitter. Trump’s campaign reportedly has only 30 paid staffers nationwide. It’s possible that the Clinton campaign, sensing the possibility of a map-changing blow-out, might abandon a base-mobilization strategy and recalibrate its messaging to go after moderate Republicans.

But John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, doesn’t think that’s likely. “The very early reporting on Clinton’s campaign, even before Sanders was a threat, suggested that she was going to run a campaign focused on reconstituting the Obama coalition, and that’s still her theory of the case,” he says. “Politicians are to some extent creatures of their party—and they’re constrained by their party—and as a consequence it’s not that easy to move to the center or abandon ideals that the party shares, especially when it’s not clear that there’s an electoral imperative for doing so.”

Sides also noted that in the past few weeks, Clinton, Barack Obama, and Sanders have all called for expanding Social Security—a plank adopted in the party platform this week—signaling that the mainstream of the party has moved away from the language of austerity and “entitlement reform.”

None of this is relevant to Democrats running for Congress in conservative districts or red states, to be sure.

And at the national level, Clinton is likely to continue to frustrate the left on foreign policy and national security. These are the only issue areas where public opinion surveys don’t reveal large and consistent partisan or ideological divisions. While a CNN poll conducted last December found that significantly more Republicans than Democrats and independents said that the “U.S. military response to ISIS hasn't been aggressive enough,” that view was nonetheless supported by a majority of all three groups. A CBS/New York Times poll released in March found that 20 percent of Republicans and an almost identical 22 percent of Democrats felt the government had “gone too far” in infringing people’s rights “in its efforts to fight terrorism.” And while Clinton enjoys a growing lead in the polls over Trump, Americans are closely divided on which candidate is better prepared to handle terrorism. Americans of all ideological stripes are afraid of terrorism, and studies suggest that fear makes liberals think more like conservatives.

In this area, it’s also well established that Clinton’s inclinations are more hawkish than Obama’s, and her campaign may also consider it necessary to “talk tough” in order to overcome deeply entrenched gender stereotypes about women leaders.

The takeaway from all of this is that progressives have no reason to keep fighting the last war. Democrats have a winning coalition that didn’t exist in the 1990s. And that coalition, like the party itself, has shifted to the left, at least on domestic issues—as one might expect in the wake of two financial crashes blamed on under-regulated markets, and a huge increase in inequality. It’s a different political landscape, and today there’s little reason to believe that Clinton will campaign, or govern, as her husband did more than two decades ago. 

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