Down-ballot Democrats disappointed in November. Despite large polling leads for most of the cycle, they largely fell short of their lofty goals. They failed to flip numerous GOP-held Senate seats they were targeting and even came close to losing their House majority. Now, Democrats in Congress sit with a razor-thin majority in the House and need to sweep two races in Georgia just to win a one-seat majority in the Senate.
In the aftermath of all this, as always happens when a party disappoints, the blame game started. Democrats blamed a lack of digital advertising, a lack of canvassing, and a lack of outreach to key groups for their poor showing. But particularly controversial was the blame game around ideology.
Only days after the results had come in, Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a prominent first-term member of the House, was quoted as saying:
The number one concern that people brought to me was… defunding the police… We need to get back to the basics that brought us across the finish line in 2018… we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that.
But was Spanberger right? Did left-wing policy drag down Democrats in 2020? There’s no perfect way to measure this, but we can look at how left-wing members performed in their own races to get an idea. Every district is different, but normalizing each candidate’s performance relative to the presidential margin can help us see who performed the best. If Spanberger and many moderate Democrats are correct, then we would expect to see progressive Democrats paying an electoral price. We should see them running behind Biden’s margin in their district, while their more moderate colleagues ran closer to his margin or even ahead of him.
But this is not the case: leftist Democrats in Congress only paid a very small price relative to their moderate colleagues in their races for re-election. Even accounting for demographics, partisan lean, and incumbency, leftist policy views still only had a small effect on electoral outcomes.
There’s no one way to measure how progressive or conservative a politician is. Public statements, votes, ads, and campaign messaging all play a role in determining how a candidate is perceived. But for this, we’re going to be using the “Leftist Tracker” from New York-based organizer Aaron Narraph Fernando. His tracker logs whether or not members of Congress supported or opposed a host of left-wing policy proposals. These range from Medicare for All to lowering the voting age to 16. Members are then given a “Leftist Score” ranging from 0-100% depending on their level of support for these various bills.
While this does not measure how progressive policy impacted voters in swing districts, it is a useful heuristic for a number of reasons. For one, members who vote consistently for progressive policy are more likely to project a progressive image to the media and voters. Secondly, if left-wing policy proposals hurt candidates, we would expect the effect to be most acute for the candidates actually espousing those proposals.
A baseline look at the data reveals that moving to the left on the issues does not seem to cost Democrats. Below is a graph showing Democratic House Incumbents’ Leftist Scores and how they did compared to Biden.
This relationship is not even close to statistically significant. According to this graph, moving from 0-100% on the Leftist Tracker would have only cost an incumbent 2.6% in terms of performance compared to Biden’s margin. In other words, we would expect a Democratic incumbent who has a Leftist Score of 0% to run 1.5% ahead of Biden, and one with a Leftist Score of 100% to run 1.1% behind him. And it only explains 1.6% of the variance in incumbent performance. In fact, the Leftist Score is so insignificant that a coin flip for every incumbent, where heads is a 1 point overperformance and tails is a 1 point underperformance, would be about 40% as effective at explaining the results.
Alternate Explanations and Further Analysis
Of course, we can’t stop there. Perhaps there are confounding variables that hide the electoral penalty leftists pay. The most obvious one is district partisanship. Leftists are more likely to hail from heavily Democratic districts. Perhaps these Democrats, by virtue of being in safe seats, face underfunded and unserious challengers and get a boost over their counterparts in competitive seats. Thanks to data analysis from Elections Daily‘s own Adam Trencher, we can test this hypothesis and others.
However, partisanship isn’t a good explanation. Controlling for Biden’s margin in the districts still leaves the Leftist Score as statistically insignificant, as the two variables only explain 3.4% of the variation in incumbent performance.
What about trends? One explanation for leftists holding up so well electorally is that many of them sit in heavily non-white working-class districts that have trended away from Democrats in recent years. As these districts have trended away from Democrats, it’s possible that down-ballot candidates have retained more popularity.
This angle is more promising. Controlling for the shift in presidential performance from 2012-2020, an incumbent Leftist Score does become statistically significant. When two incumbents sit in districts that shifted the exact same amount in those 8 years, we do expect the more leftist one to perform worse compared to the top of the ticket than the moderate one. But while this relationship is real, it is not very large in absolute terms.
Moving from 0-100% on the Leftist Scale only costs an incumbent 3.5% compared to Biden in this model. So we would expect an incumbent with a 0% Leftist Score, in a district that shifted 0% between 2012 and 2020, to do 2.5% better than Biden, and one with a 100% Leftist Score to do 1% worse than him. So while the Leftist Score is significant in this model, which explains 27% of the variation in incumbent performance, it hardly points to leftism being fatal for Democratic incumbents.
Lastly, we ran a full model that controlled for a large number of variables. These included Obama’s 2012 margin in the district, the 2012-2020 presidential vote shift in the district, and the number of terms the incumbent has been in office. In this model, an incumbent’s leftist score remains unpredictive. A 100% leftist incumbent could expect to do 1.2% worse than a 0% Leftist incumbent in an identical district. Moreover, Leftist Scores are so lacking in predictive value that if the Elections Daily team traveled to Monte Carlo and plugged in Leftist Scores based on spins of the Roulette wheel, we’d have a 45% chance of getting more predictive results than the model. Below is the summary of the data from each model.
|Democratic Performance Compared to Biden for Incumbent with 0% Leftist Score
|Democratic Performance Compared to Biden for Incumbent with 100% Leftist Score
|Shift When Going from 0-100% Leftist
|Amount of Variation in Incumbent Performance Explained by Model
Note: This data does not include Presidential vote data for LA-02 and 8 New York districts for which there are no calculations done yet.
The results this year challenge the conventional wisdom. It has long been held that when incumbents openly endorse left-wing policies, their performance will suffer as a result. But this does not appear to be the case. Even as incumbents endorse more progressive positions, how they do at the ballot box barely takes a hit.
Democrats have bemoaned that voters perceived them as too leftist. As too extreme to vote for down-ballot. But it may be time to re-examine this assumption. As much as conventional wisdom is hard to kill in politics, there are many in the Democratic party who would be eager to kill off this particular piece of orthodoxy. As the party moves left and progressives have a larger voice in the party, look for the idea that left-wing policy is unelectable to be challenged aggressively.