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Centrist School III: Polling Alone
Entrepreneurs in the center cannot copy the Far Left playbook. But strengthening the Center Left faction in states has a low bar, with a community ready to be activated.
In 2018, to ply the trade of a Center Left political operative in a blue state like Massachusetts was to lead a lonely existence. Mitt Romney once likened being a Republican in the Bay State to being a rancher at a vegetarian convention, and endeavoring to build a factional community in a pragmatic ideological lane was much the same.
There were no happy hours to attend, no dedicated SuperPAC, no shared resources. This isolation was in spite of – or maybe due to – the fact that most voters and policymakers adhered to some variant of a Center Left perspective.
Last week, we were Learning From the Far Left – what made that entrepreneurial ecosystem so effective over the last five years. Some of it was attitude (“the more you fight, the stronger you get”), and some was structural (integrating across issues and geography). But some of it was an insurgent attitude: the innovation and tight bonds that come from a small group fighting uphill.
There is now room for insurgency from the Center Left, the faction always under fire from leftists and increasingly from the center as well. Third Way’s recent report on the extremism of No Labels quotes their founder saying “AOC, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren [control] the Democratic Party. I don’t believe there is any center left there.”
The Centrist School concept is about sharing lessons, and sharing our story of what happened in Massachusetts with Priorities For Progress and how that flowed into a national community with the Welcome team. Because strengthening the Center Left is the single best path for political entrepreneurs. Because To Defeat Authoritarianism, We Need Partisan Centrism. And because, while it is ridiculous to erase the Center Left, many have strong incentive to do so.
And, unlike on the Far Left, it is not always obvious where to go for connection.
But what we found is that when you try just a little bit, you find community. The top leaders at national moderate Democratic groups reply to your emails or DMs or phone calls. Local leaders who felt under attack from the extremists want to get together. And when you poll – even if you start by polling alone – the data don’t lie, and everyone from moderate leaders to the media knows it is correct.
It’s not like a vegetarian convention at all, more like a fun tailgate no one knew was there. All you needed was the (electric) truck and some burgers.
More on that below, but first an introduction to a Zoom component to Centrist Schools: Office Hours conversations with experts and case studies.
Join Us for a Centrist School: Office Hours conversation via Zoom on October 11th @ 12pm EST with Matthew Yglesias of Slow Boring and Bloomberg (Register Here)
Polling Alone: The Structural Reasons for Centrist Operative Loneliness at the State Level
So why no centrist happy hours in Massachusetts in 2018? And why does it matter?
Voters and most leaders held fairly pragmatic views, but not necessarily a coherent set of views. And among political and policy professionals, there was little mixing across pragmatic groups unlike on the Far Left. The pragmatic advocacy communities were siloed: education reform groups here, business groups there, and YIMBYs growing their own niche. But there were no “professional centrist” operatives, tasked with managing the various members of the prevailing ideological coalition and developing tactics.
Meanwhile, the community that President Obama’s top aides referred to as “The Professional Left” was still on the rise. The Far Left in Massachusetts was connected, coordinated and energetic. Political directors for public sector unions flowed seamlessly into jobs with progressive advocacy nonprofits, and vice versa. Policy debates enlivened vibrant social events, greasing aligned fundraising and electoral strategies. The Center Left operative watched from the outside, nose pressed against the glass.
While there are many aspects of the left that centrists cannot – or should not1 – copy, we should acknowledge that our siloed approaches to policy can be isolating and prevent the Center Left from sharing effective tactics, building cross-issue coalitions, and gaining media visibility proportional to its role.
This matters for many reasons, including:
Winning More General Elections: Nationally, the defense of democracy (and any advancement of shared policy values) requires that Democrats Win The Middle – a majority that can only be gained through energetic centrism within the Democratic Party that wins right-of-center voters. And effectively winning those voters consistently will require new models and organizations targeted directly at them.
Primary Outcomes in Safe Democratic Seats: Democratic leadership hails nearly entirely from deep-blue states and districts, so power dynamics even in “Safe Democratic” regions - and especially in federal primary elections - really matters
The problem facing said Center Left activist is not lacking the desire for connection and community, nor a lack of willingness of like-minded allies to connect and join in community. The problem is the lack of organic, integrated infrastructure both vertically (local, state, national) and horizontally (across issues and tactics). Engagement with politics often flows from specific issues, which for maximalist, extreme ideologies often leads to natural coherence.
Instead, Center Left entrepreneurs are siloed by issue and geography. Little infrastructure exists to keep a centrist entrepreneur employed in the pursuit of ideological influence, particularly in any given blue state. Instead, centrist-minded people tend to find themselves pulled out of a defined political ecosystem, working on narrow issues rather than constructing an ideological narrative about the future of the party.
But there is a silver lining: the lack of infrastructure masks a willing community, particularly at the national level. For any individual centrist entrepreneur, phone calls to the leading national groups are quickly returned and events from influential national groups demonstrate broad desire for community. But attempts to strengthen that community around the country cannot just copy the playbook of the extremes.
What the Center Left Cannot Copy from the Far Left
While there are aspects of the Far Left entrepreneurial ecosystem that can be replicated, many of the trends and underlying assets that the recent leftist movement was built atop are not readily available to centrists.
The center does not possess the comprehensive nature of the component parts that allowed for the vertical and horizontal integration on the Far Left described in Part II. There is no centrist cousin to the Democratic Socialists of America, and nowhere near the same scale of sympathetic interest groups with local and state chapter models. Nothing near the level of membership, breadth, and predictable revenue of public sector unions.
The Far Left ecosystem has also benefited from national trends that have empowered ideological extremes in both parties: increasing association in the zeitgeist between political participation and extremism, education polarization, and the nationalization of politics at even the hyperlocal level.
Political participation correlated with extremism
Engaging with politics is increasingly correlated with highly ideological views on politics. This includes activists and advocacy groups, but it goes all the way up to candidates. As Stanford political scientist Andy Hall emphasizes in the book Who Wants to Run, a major driver of polarization is the increasing reluctance of moderate citizens to run for office. By degrading the lawmaking profession and centralizing power within a small leadership coterie, we’ve made it miserable for a pragmatist to be a politician. Understandably, people who aren’t motivated by extremism no longer want to run for office. This has empowered hard-liners in both parties: If only ideologues are driven to participate, naturally both the electorate and the candidates it chooses will lean more toward extremism than the middle2.
Education polarization aligns elites in media, academia, think tanks, etc. with left wing
As the base of the Democratic Party has become more educated and these voters have turned out in high numbers in primaries, progressives have gained the upper hand in intra-party conflict. Education correlates with ideology, and as the party has become more educated, it has become more ideological (and vice versa; the trends are concurrent and mutually reinforcing).
Listeners of a recent Pod Save America network episode on who is to blame for the downfall of the Far Left heard an advertisement for an $80 per month delivery of a jar of honey. If your target market overlaps with nearly $1,000 in annual spending on honey from New Zealand then appealing to the mass market will be difficult.
In the wake of Trump’s election, the media, think tanks and academia have also grown more Democratic and more left-wing, further distorting incentives.
The nationalization of politics
The rise of a consolidated national media ecosystem has also empowered the left by making politics more about ideology than about delivering the bacon to home constituencies. Voters are no longer as concerned about what politicians are doing for their communities, and instead follow national stories and form their views about policymakers based on the national brands of parties, which are defined in large part by extremists.
Voters care less about what members are doing for their districts in part because they simply don’t know anymore – local news has been decimated. Studies show that the decline in local news decreases both political accountability and split-ticket voting. When parties are increasingly defined by the national brand, extremists thrive.
Many plays are still available to Center Left entrepreneurs
While the centrist entrepreneurial ecosystem must ditch large chunks of the Far Left playbook, there are enough plays available to win the various levels of the game:
Recover assets from the anti-partisan centrists to strengthen the moderate faction within the Democratic Party
Deploy those assets to convincingly win the intra-party branding battle, leading an energetically pragmatic Democratic Party that can win the middle
Beat the authoritarian GOP in enough general elections to preserve democracy and govern effectively
The centrist entrepreneur may not have the comprehensive ecosystem available to the extremes, but battles #1 and #3 are the terrain on which only the centrist partisan can win. As political scientist Steve Teles notes in “The Future is Faction”,
… activists, donors, and intellectuals alienated by the polarized direction of their respective party will need to redirect their activity into capturing and then building it up in places where it has desiccated. Where their parties are weak, moderates will have an opportunity to establish a power base for intraparty conflict.
Only the centrist partisan can win those three levels of the game: beat No Labels “independents”, rebrand the party, win swing districts. Those fights lend themselves to strengthening the elements of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem:
Entrepreneurs & Talent
Institutions and individuals with Knowledge & Resources
Institutions and individuals serving as Champions & Conveners
Onramps (access points) to the ecosystem so anyone can participate
Intersections that facilitate the interaction of people, ideas and resources
Stories that people tell about themselves and their ecosystem
Culture rich in social capital
Pieces Are There, just Put Them Together - The Massachusetts Experience
Our experience with pragmatic startups in Massachusetts and nationally offer two lessons that can entice others to take similar plunges:
Community is readily available, just reach out and put up a flag
Tactics are readily available, just make them explicit
In 2018, being a Center Left operative was lonely … until the first call was made. National leaders called back, with advice and encouragement. Local leaders prodded along more ideas, dinners, get-togethers, connections, and ideas for poll questions.
And the vacuum in explicitly moderate Democratic content at the state level was frustrating … until the first poll was thrown into that vacuum, and the inbound calls started coming from political leaders, operatives, foundations, and media.
The pragmatic startup has advantages in a unique ability to play on center-right terrain, to win the middle and deliver majorities. But the biggest advantage is in the obvious truths that it is no one’s job to tell. The “Professional Left” is so much larger, particularly on the state level. Many jobs in progressive nonprofits entail getting politicians and media to think that voters have moved left, and in inflating the sense of power possessed by the left.
The job of the centrist activist is easier, because it is simply collecting and disseminating the data – not skewing or cherry-picking samples, or using one election in a D+60 district as a stand-in for the state.
The problem? Those jobs are rare.
There are many tactics that a centrist entrepreneur – or just a fraction of one person’s time – can deploy. Polling is one, something that Priorities For Progress has done a lot of in Massachusetts since 2018. Because of the lack of state-based polling in this vein, even the toplines of basic questions can quickly gain traction to inform the political class of where voters really are. In blue states, the prevailing narrative would be struck down with poll data on questions like:
Do you want the Democratic Party to become more liberal, more conservative, or stay the same?
Do you want the next governor to be more liberal or more conservative than the current governor?
Do you consider yourself to be a Democrat like Joe Biden or like Bernie Sanders?
Putting this into practice is not unduly swaying politicians, the media, or voters. It is simply adding basic information to correctly frame reality.
For example, when the recent Massachusetts gubernatorial election started to heat up In December 2021, the media narrative remained trained on a Far Left electorate with stories like:
POLITICO heralding “The Left’s Early Moves in Guv Race”
WGBH predicting “Progressives like Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen will try to replicate the kind of strength Bostonians like Michelle Wu and Lydia Edwards have shown at the city's polls”
The following month, polling revealed reality. Those same outlets had stories like:
WGBH: "A majority of Democratic primary voters do not want the next governor to be more liberal than Charlie Baker.” “The poll also found that 45% of overall respondents want a governor "about the same as Charlie Baker." When limited to likely Democratic primary voters, 51%, said they want the next governor to be on par with Baker's moderation, with 38% saying they'd want a more liberal chief executive.”
POLITICO: BAKER LOOMS LARGE — Half of the likely Democratic primary voters surveyed are more likely to support a candidate that has GOP Gov. Charlie Baker’s blessing. And 51 percent say the next governor should be ideologically similar to the moderate Republican. That puts some data behind Healey’s moderate overtures and her refusal to follow her rivals in hitting Baker, who has a higher favorability rating in this poll than anyone running to replace him.
Start polling. You won’t be alone for long.
And speaking of being in community, register here to join a us via Zoom with Matthew Yglesias on October 11 at 12pm.
Partisan centrists seeking to win voters don’t have the luxury of unworkable proposals or injecting absurd-but-catchy slogans into the discourse to “shift the Overton Window.”
As one example, in 2016 Washington State had both a presidential caucus that included only hardcore partisans and a non-binding primary with high participation. Turnout in the caucus was 26,000 participants, where Sanders won 73 percent of the votes, while the primary had 800,000 voters and Clinton won 53 percent.