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As the starting-gun sounds in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, many people believe that the Democratic Party is more liberal than it used to be. And they’re right, at least if you go by how rank-and-file Democrats characterize themselves. But, as we will see, this complicates Democrats’ efforts to take back the White House in 2020.
A bit of history is in order. A quarter of a century ago, when President Bill Clinton was in the White House and governing as a “new” Democrat, the Democratic party was not a liberal party. In fact, back then, 25 percent of Democrats regarded themselves as liberal, 25 percent as conservative, and 48 percent as moderate. In contrast, as of 2018, the party’s liberal cohort had doubled to 51 percent, while the conservative share of the party had been cut in half to just 13 percent, and the moderates had shrunk by one-third, to 34 percent.
This is the first time in the history of modern survey research that a majority of the Democratic Party has called itself “liberal,” and it helps explain why so many Democratic presidential aspirants have headed left. This does not necessarily mean that a left-leaning candidate is a lock to win the nomination. As we saw in the 2016 Republican contest, if a number of candidates vie for the support of their party’s majority faction, a candidate with a very different orientation may be able to commandeer a plurality.
This liberal trend within the Democratic Party is more than an ideological sorting-out between the two major parties. Yes, many voters, especially in the South, who were once conservative Democrats have shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party. But at the same time, the electorate as a whole has moved left.
In 1994, 38 percent of Americans called themselves conservative, compared to 17 percent for liberals. By 2018, the conservative share had declined slightly, to 35 percent, while …