The Path Forward For Progressives

By Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee)

The narrative war over the future of the Democratic Party is aflutter and no doubt we’ll have better evidence soon. For now, we know that many of the insurgent Democrats that progressives were most thrilled about were not able to pull through. Further analysis of their margins will be important to determine how these candidates performed compared to an objective baseline.

There are bright spots. Colin Allred, who beat more centrist candidates in his primary, won a decisive victory. And the overall the party is moving in a leftward direction: Sharice Davids, Sean Casten, Susan Wild, Josh Harder and Haley Stevens all won (Harder is currently favored) and support Medicare for All. Four years ago, it’s unlikely that candidates in swing districts would back such unabashed progressive policies. Beto O’Rourke performed far better than expectations would predict. Further, with Jeff Van Drew barely beating an underfunded neo-Nazi, it’s far from clear that aggressive centrism is the path to electoral victory.

Looking at the bigger picture, anti-choice Democrats have basically disappeared, and fewer and fewer Democrats boast an “A” rating from the NRA. No Democrats ran on immigrant-bashing, something it was common to see Democrats weaponize to win elections just a few years ago. The future of the Democratic Party is still ultimately a progressive one.

What’s clear is that progressive insurgents had a mixed bag… in purple districts.

In Blue districts, outright progressives are overwhelmingly coming out ahead. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Deb Haaland, Chuy Garcia, Rashida Tlaib, Jahana Hayes, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, all unabashed progressives, will all be in the next Congress. The Medicare for all caucus will expand. Only one retiring Democrat was replaced by someone who is likely to be to their right (Colleen Hanabusa replaced by Ed Case).

This points to the path forward for progressives: it’s time to more seriously contest safe blue Democratic primaries. Incumbents like Eliot Engel who represent increasingly diverse districts but hold centrist views on key issues should face real electoral competition. In these safe blue districts we should have representatives who reflect the Democratic base, both descriptively (more women, more people of color and more young folks) and on our key issues like Medicare for All, green jobs and abolishing ICE. This is the best path forward for progressive victories.

On a nationally representative survey of Democrats we fielded with YouGov Blue, we asked respondents the following question:

“Even if it's not exactly right, which of the following comes closer to your view?

  • Democrats should focus on providing a check against Trump and the Republican culture of corruption. Drawn-out primary fights among Democrats are counterproductive.

  • Democrats should provide a clear, positive agenda to contrast with Trump and the Republican culture of corruption. Primary elections ensure the strongest Democrats emerge to advance that agenda.

  • Don't know.”

The results are unequivocal. The chart below shows support for primaries among all Democrats, progressives and socialists (an individual could identify as both a progressive and a socialist, as I do). Across the board, voters are supportive of more primary competition.


We also asked respondents to allocate points across a range of reasons they would support a primary challenge against incumbents and voting with Republicans stood out as the reason that engendered the most opposition.


There are hundreds of safe seat Democrats. Many are admirable progressives. Far too many are out of touch with their districts and the progressive movement. It’s time to give Democrats in those districts a real choice. That is the path forward to a more progressive Democratic Party.

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress

Data for Progress/YouGov Blue fielded an online survey between October 15 and October 19, 2018 of a nationally representative sample of 1,903 respondents who self-identified as Democratic or as Independents who leaned toward the Democrats. The overall survey margin of error was +/- 2.4%. The sample was weighted to a registered voter universe and then subsetted to a universe of Democratic voters.

Sean McElwee