It's common sense: Democratic politicians who support "radical" notions like Medicare for All, free college, or preserving a habitable planet via a Green New Deal guarantee their own defeat. A recent New York Times interview with Pennsylvania Congressman and corporate Democrat Conor Lamb states simply that Medicare for All is "unpopular in swing districts," an idea presumably so obvious that it requires no documentation. Lamb asserts that opposition to Medicare for All and other progressive policies "separates a winner from a loser in a [swing] district like mine."
The Democratic Party's army of political strategists has used this logic for decades, to explain both victories and defeats. Wunderkind party consultant David Shor, for example, assures us that "boring, moderate" Democrats systematically outperform the "ideological extremists."
"Of the 12 Medicare for All sponsors previously elected in swing districts, 9 were running for reelection in 2020. All 9 won. Four of these districts had even leaned Republican in the prior two presidential elections. By contrast, 30 percent (11 of 37) of the moderate Democrats from swing districts lost their reelection bids."
This mantra been internalized by much of the Democratic electorate. Millions of voters in the 2016 and 2020 primaries voted for the "moderate" choices largely because they thought Bernie Sanders and other progressives were not electable. "I might like Medicare for All," the thinking goes, "but most of the country is inalterably opposed, so someone like Sanders just can't win."
It may be common sense, but it's wrong. Every single Congressional co-sponsor of the "Medicare for All" bills in the House and Senate who were up for reelection beat their Republican opponents in 2020. And in 2018. And in 2016. And every Democrat who lost reelection to a Republican had campaigned on the "boring, moderate" platform that Shor contends is the formula for success.
In fact, you have to go back a full decade to find a single Democratic incumbent who co-sponsored a Medicare for All bill and lost their reelection bid. One lost in 2010, when 52 total House Democrats lost reelection in the Republican blowout. For the entire period from 2002 to 2020, there were two. During that time Medicare for All has had between 38 and 124 co-sponsors in the House.
In 2003, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) first introduced his "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All" bill (H.R. 676). He reintroduced the bill in each session until 2019, when Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a successor (H.R. 1384), the "Medicare for All Act of 2019." (In the meantime, Bernie Sanders first introduced a Senate version in 2017.) Starting with the election of 2004, therefore, many voters could express their opinion about this prototypical progressive measure by voting for or against the co-sponsor of a Medicare for All bill. And, if Conor Lamb, David Shor, and the other Democratic establishment gurus are correct, the "ideological extremists" who sponsored those bills should have performed poorly in swing districts, which are only willing to send "boring, moderate" Democrats to Congress. The Medicare for All advocates could be elected and reelected only in overwhelmingly Democratic districts with a strongly progressive population, exemplified by Jayapal's 7th Washington district in Seattle.
Taking Lamb's challenge, we identified the 147 Congressional swing districts which flipped from Republican to Democrat in a House election in 2002 or later. We then looked at which of those Democrats won reelection the next time around, comparing the 12 Democrats from those districts who became co-sponsors of Medicare for All with the 135 "moderates" who did not support the bill.
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All 12 Medicare for All sponsors won reelection, despite the fact that their seats had been held by Republicans just two years before. On the other hand, 30% (40 out of 135) of the moderates lost re-election in the next cycle.
This pattern was particularly striking in 2020, when Democrats were surprised by their loss of 10 seats in the House despite Joe Biden's victory at the presidential level. Of the 12 Medicare for All sponsors previously elected in swing districts, 9 were running for reelection in 2020. All 9 won. Four of these districts had even leaned Republican in the prior two presidential elections. By contrast, 30 percent (11 of 37) of the moderate Democrats from swing districts lost their reelection bids.
These results refute Conor Lamb's maxim that progressives can't win election or reelection "in a [swing] district like mine," as well as David Shor's proclamation that "boring, moderate" Democrats systematically outperform the "ideological extremists." The simple truth is that progressives have a better record of winning reelection, even in the swing districts.
"These results support the argument that the left has long been making: that there is a real appetite for progressive, anti-corporate policies among the U.S. public—even in swing states."
Is Medicare for All just an exception? That is, do other progressive policies still alienate the "moderate" voter, as Lamb and Shor argue? To test this possibility, we looked at what is likely the most polarizing of prominent issues in the 2020 election: the willingness of candidates to support systemic reform to curb racist violence by the police. We considered the electoral fate of the eight swing-district Democrats who co-sponsored H.R. 7120, the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020." We found that all had won reelection, despite the unanimous common sense among establishment Democrats that supporting the demands of the Movement for Black Lives was electoral poison.
These results support the argument that the left has long been making: that there is a real appetite for progressive, anti-corporate policies among the U.S. public—even in swing states like Lamb's Pennsylvania, and even among the white voters who are so often dismissed and misunderstood by Democratic leaders and hotshot consultants. If those policies are framed clearly and honestly in terms that are intelligible to the average person (e.g., "Medicare for All"), they often garner wide support even in swing districts. And they gain more support than the idea of returning to the pre-Trump status quo and the hollow promises of establishment Democrats.
It's difficult to believe that Democratic Party gurus really misunderstand this reality. All the data we've presented above is easily available online. We collected and analyzed it in about 48 hours. They study this stuff full-time. If they don't see it by now, it's because they and their bosses—and their real bosses, the corporate overlords—are committed not to seeing it. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."