For progressives: In red states, make it about policy, not party: COLUMN

Progressives might recognize a couple of things from the latest poll results.

November 11, 2018, 10:41 PM

There has been much partisan and pundit speculation about how progressive issues are hurting the Democratic Party. The truth is more complicated than that, and one could argue the views of the Democratic Party are hurting progressive issues - most especially in red and purple jurisdictions.

For the past decade or so, many voters pick a color jersey to wear, and then decide their issue stances. The issue positions come in the aftermath of many folks deciding they are a Republican or Democrat. This party identification has much more to do with culture or place than it has to do with ideology. And if one divorces party from policy, the progressive policies across America are much more popular than is characterized by the media and in our political discourse.

For example, in examining recent polling, a large majority of Americans (70 percent) support Medicare-for-all, otherwise known as single-payer health care, that includes 85 percent of Democrats and a majority of both Independents and Republicans. Medicare for all is much more popular than President Trump, and is more popular than either political party.

The election results showed that when you put progressive policies directly on the ballot, they do exceedingly well at the polls including in deeply red states. In deep red Utah, Idaho and Nebraska, expanded Medicaid pasted comfortably as ballot initiatives. Further, in red Missouri and Arkansas, ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage passed overwhelmingly at the polls, even while opposed by most Republican leaders. In Florida, giving felons the right to vote carried in a landslide though many Republican officials campaigned against it. And in Washington state, restrictions on gun purchases and enhanced background checks received more votes than any candidate running for office.

What does this all mean?

When voters across America are given a chance to vote directly on many progressive issues, and when not linked to a particular political party, they give broad support to these policies. Not only can certain progressive issues do well in blue and purple states, but they can succeed in red states when they are not dragged down in many voters’ minds by linkage to party identification. It means that ideology is not driving most voters choices - and if leaders can separate key issues from party identification, they can achieve success.

Progressives might recognize a couple of things from these latest results at the polls.

1. The power of the NRA is a myth when it comes to general elections. Yes, they have power in GOP primaries, but when it comes to the diverse electorate of a general election, they are very likely to lose. This shows up in nearly every poll where most of America wants common sense gun reform, and the results last Tuesday showed this.

2. Democrats might be better off just laying out some popular progressive issues to accomplish and define those issues not as party positions, but as advances forward for voters, separate from making voters commit to being a Democrat.

3. Progressives who want to accomplish policy change might achieve much greater success pushing forward ballot initiatives in red and purple states, and not get too bogged down in convincing GOP legislators to support their positions. They would have a much easier time getting voters to commit to certain positions, like increases in minimum wage or gun reform, than in going through state legislatures which may block them at every turn because of party politics.

In the 21st century American political environment, culture is way more important than ideology, and on certain progressive issues Republican leaders and right-wing media is way out of step with red state voters. In the midterm just held, we see from ballot initiatives, not only will Democrats support some progressive positions, but many Independents and a sizable group of Republicans will as well.

The main problem Democrats have in winning races in red states or districts is not an issue of positions or ideology, it is that many of those voters don’t feel they are culturally aligned, and that the Democratic Party carries a negative brand which drags down movement forward on progressive policy.

It is a new world, and success can more readily be achieved by understanding that voters care much more about cultural alignment than they do about ideological alignment.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.