Mass. Dems actually lean to the middle

The left generates more noise, but voters hew to the center

AS WE ENTER 2020, the Democratic Party is in the midst of an identity crisis. The conventional wisdom says that a highly progressive wing, buoyed by the victories of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, is poised to make up an ever-larger share of the Democratic electorate, with the potential to win the presidential nomination.

Really? Maybe. A few of us decided to test that thesis in this bluest of blue states. If it is valid here, it might not necessarily be valid in states that are not as deeply blue. But if it is not valid here, then it is highly unlikely that it will be valid in less-deeply blue states.

First, we assembled a politically and socially diverse set of veteran campaign managers, academics, chiefs of staff, and political analysts. That was a year ago, and from the comfort of our homes and offices, we have been speaking weekly and polling regularly, in an effort to measure the size and impact of the ideological groups in the Massachusetts electorate in general and the Democratic electorate especially.

Briefly, our findings seem to indicate a more moderate Democratic electorate, from immigration to health care, than advertised in the political discussion. With a focus on issues that are resonating in the Democratic presidential primary process, our most recent poll tried to define and measure the size of the party’s progressive bloc and its more moderate wing.

This is our first set of results, which include some striking findings that we hope will inform debate across the political spectrum. We also invite comments and suggestions for future polls to help us further explore the Democratic electorate.

Our first objective was to figure out how big a segment these highly progressive Democrats, whom we call “Vanguard Democrats,” were in a Democratic primary, and how big is the bloc of remaining Democratic primary voters, who we have called the “Big Middle.” To start, we conducted a standard poll of 443 likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters and asked them if they supported the eight high-visibility progressive issues listed in the graph below. We gathered information via automated telephone survey, and the margin of error in our results is 4.6 percentage points. (See here for full results.)

If a respondent supported six or more positions, we classified that respondent as a Vanguard Democrat. Given that definition, 22 percent of respondents could be regarded as Vanguard Democrats. If a respondent supported no more than five of the eight, we classified them as Big Middle Democrats (BMD). They made up 78 percent of respondents.

We believe these findings — preliminary as they may be — are notable, for a number of reasons.

  1. Vanguard Democrats are a significant segment of the electorate. Based on our initial findings, Vanguard Democrats appear to be a coherent group, with strongly held beliefs. At 22 percent, they also represent about the same proportion of primary voters as Tea Party voters did in 2010 when they were able to topple a number of mainstream Republican lawmakers. It’s easy to understand the view that this wing of the party is ascendant.
  2. That said, the Vanguard represent only 22 percent of the primary electorate in deep blue Massachusetts. If it is 22 percent here, how big is it in an increasingly purple state, such as New Hampshire, or other swing states?
  3. On many issues, Vanguard and Big Middle Democrats are significantly out of sync with each other. Although a majority of BMDs share the Vanguard’s support for Medicare for All and abolishing the Electoral College, less than one-third of them share its support for each of four of the other six issue positions.

A look at this first Vanguard issue set, embraced by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders nationally, demonstrates most primary voting Democrats in Massachusetts are not nearly on board with this full agenda, from AOC’s very favorable rating  (Vanguard 81 percent to Big Middle’s 18 percent), to the Green New Deal (Vanguard 98 percent to Big Middle’s 39 percent).

The media loves the Vanguard Democrats because they give good quotes and attack Trump. The policy views of the much larger Big Middle are getting short shrift and their voting power is underestimated.

Overall, our results show that Democratic voters are much more middle-of-the-road than media coverage would have us believe. It may help explain why moderates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg continue to poll well in spite of the ascendancy of the left. Now, more than ever, political leaders and candidates need to recognize that the “Big Middle” is the forgotten majority in America.

Evan Falchuk ran for governor in 2014 on the United Independent Party ticket. He is currently CEO of VillagePlan, a Boston-based health care technology company. Lou DiNatale is a veteran Massachusetts pollster.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author