Measuring each candidate’s ideological position based on the primary’s most salient issues
An analysis of where each Democratic primary candidate stands on major social and economic policy proposals
Democrats certainly agree about one thing: Donald Trump must be a one-term president. As the crowded field of primary candidates jostles to win the party’s nomination, a major concern among many voters and pundits is the question of “electability”. Rather than selecting a candidate on the merits of their political views and policy proposals, many believe it is more important to consider who is best poised to defeat Donald Trump.
While in past elections most Democrats would automatically conclude that a more moderate voice like Joe Biden would fare better in a general election match-up, Trump’s atypical presidency has overturned much of the conventional logic that used to dictate what was considered politically possible and strategic. Informed by the failed establishment-backed candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the progressive wing of the party is now making a forceful argument that more radical candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren offer not only a compelling vision, but stand a better chance of beating Donald Trump in the general election.
Regardless of who wins the nomination, the platform of the Democratic party this year is set to be the most progressive in at least a generation. Inspired by the insurgent Bernie Sanders candidacy in 2016, activists have pushed the party decidedly to the left on both economic and cultural issues. Policy proposals like nationalizing the healthcare system, raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour and repealing the criminal penalties for people apprehended while crossing the Southern border were until recently fringe ideas, yet now are influencing the party’s mainstream.
When the New York Times Editorial Board published their dual endorsement of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar in January, they argued that where candidates “differ most significantly is not the what but the how”. In other words, while voters should pay attention to policy differences, their selection is essentially a choice between two models of leadership: radical or realist. Yet, unlike past elections, the realist — i.e. more centrist — approach espoused by Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg is not predestined for victory. With polls still showing a tight race just weeks into the primary elections, Democratic voters are somewhat freed from traditional notions of “electability” in the Trump era. Nevertheless, the traditional actors within the party have pointed out that a Sanders nomination would jeopardize Democratic hopes of regaining the Senate majority and sustaining the House majority that was won in 2018. Therefore, voters can more comfortably support the candidate whose policies best align with their personal beliefs, knowing that he or she could, in fact, plausibly win.
In our analysis mapping the ideological position of the six leading Democratic candidates (plus Donald Trump) on a two-axis political spectrum, we find that the differences underpinning the divide between the “realist” and “radical” candidates is based on more than just leadership style: where they stand on a selection of 30 issue statements reveals a sharp political divide within the Democratic Party. Given that generally all Democratic candidates’ platforms closely resemble each other, we focused primarily on issues which emphasize the differences between the candidates — even among those with seemingly overlapping proposals. This method results in a slight exaggeration of the closeness of the Democratic candidates to the conservative and right-wing view of Donald Trump in our mapping.
As expected, Senators Warren and Sanders occupy the top left quadrant, espousing, on average, positions significantly to the left of the other candidates on economic issues, and more progressive than the other candidates on social issues. Warren sometimes takes more aggressive stances on reigning in the powers of the presidency and making structural adjustments to the government — like ending the filibuster in the Senate, or adding justices to the Supreme Court — to advance her progressive agenda, pushing her a bit higher than Sanders on the progressive-conservative axis. Sanders, meanwhile, sticks to his ideological roots in democratic socialism with several stances, like a federal jobs guarantee, nationalized pre-kindergarten system, and abolishing the private healthcare industry, that push him slightly to the left of Warren.
In contrast, Vice President Biden and Senator Klobuchar are running campaigns that appeal more to the center of the Democratic voter base, with a strong emphasis on their bipartisan records and their pledge to restore some normalcy to the Oval Office in the aftermath of Trump. This centrist approach is borne out in the moderate stances they take up about a variety of issues that keep both candidates closer to the center of the ideological landscape. With the policy debate this primary far more progressive than in past cycles, Biden and Klobuchar have still needed to stake out ambitious plans for big-government solutions to issues like the climate crisis and health care.
The younger, rising star candidates, like Pete Buttigieg also fall closer to the political center on the social-conservative axis, and slightly to the economic right on issues like trade and military spending. When Buttigieg, a former Mayor of a South Bend, Indiana, announced his candidacy, many of his positions on national political issues were undefined. A gay, millennial, military veteran, Buttigieg’s willingness to call for structural changes like abolishing the electoral college or adding justices to the Supreme Court initially led him to be perceived as a voice for the progressive wing of the party. As our analysis of his positions show, in fact, his more hawkish foreign policy and the reluctance of adopting proposals like Medicare-for-All, place him firmly in the political center of the party alongside Biden and Klobuchar. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor had initially announced that he would not run for president in 2020 with the intension of supporting one of the moderate candidates against Trump. However, given Joe Biden’s unexpected weakness, Bloomberg changed his mind in late November.. He touts himself as a “doer and a problem solver” , deploying his vast personal wealth to fund his late-entry campaign despite remaining hazy on the policy elements of his centrist political platform.
Despite important differences, what emerges across our analysis of these six candidates is the palpable desire among Democrats not only to reject the policies of President Trump, but also lay out a progressive vision that includes significant investment in expanded state services and a break from past environmental policies and discriminatory practices. The Democrats’ joint desire to move away from President Trump’s policies, we show, is in several cases present more so in intention than in concrete proposals. While degrees of the Democrats’ desired policy implementation would undoubtedly vary, our analysis demonstrates a significant overlap with President Trump’s often unconventional Republican political positions, particularly concerning trade policy. It will be up to the voters to decide whether they believe in the radical vision for systematic change advocated by Warren and Sanders, or the more incremental, moderate approach taken up by their rivals.
Below follow brief descriptions of several of the major issues shaping the campaign, homing in on policy stances that differentiate the candidates and result in their mapped position on the two-axis ideological landscape.
Thematic policy stances
Alarming reports about the impending climate crisis have unified Democrats around the goal of moving the United States towards a carbon-neutral economy. Yet, while the candidates echo each other’s rhetoric calling for “bold action”, how and when a full transition away from fossil fuels would take place is still up for debate among Democrats.
Currently, nuclear energy accounts for about half of U.S. emission-free generation. Investing in nuclear plants would help meet carbon-reduction targets faster, but both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren oppose any further investment in nuclear power due to safety and waste concerns, while, Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar, and to some extent Bloomberg all see the technology as key to meeting their carbon-reduction goals.
In order to move towards a carbon-free economy, many candidates are calling for major investments — most notably in the Green New Deal legislation — plus restrictions on fossil-fuel extraction and markets, thus strongly opposing Trump’s policies of expanding domestic oil drilling and coal extraction. While all have called for new limits on fracking (hydraulic gas drilling), only Warren and Sanders would go as far as to ban it. In an interesting break from the conventionally progressive position, Sanders joins Senator Klobuchar in his opposition to implementing taxes on carbon emissions due to concerns that such taxes would disproportionately affect middle- and working-class consumers.
Political positions on trade in the United States no longer hew closely to party identification. While traditionally the Republicans advocated for lowering trade barriers as a cornerstone of free-market economics, Donald Trump overturned party orthodoxy by attacking NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and weaponizing tariffs to protect U.S. industry. On the Democratic side, Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar have actually aligned with the President in their willingness to advance more protectionist trade policies as a way to protect U.S. workers. In contrast, Bloomberg, Biden and Buttigieg reject such measures and defend free-trade policies that for decades received bipartisan support.
The general leftward lurch in the Democratic Party has also shifted the conversation around education policy. While many leading Democrats in the Bush and Obama years promoted the expansion of charter schools as a privatized solution to failing primary and secondary public schooling, all current candidates, except Michael Bloomberg, now call to halt funding to for-profit charter schools. The candidates, however, remain split on whether to support non-profit charter schools, with some like Biden and Buttigieg calling for more accountability, and others like Warren calling for an outright ban.
Candidates are also advancing expansive proposals to make public universities tuition-free, forgive student debt, and provide for universal pre-kindergarten. A major point-of-contention between candidates on these policies centers on who would be able to access the augmented state funding for education. Senator Sanders has argued vociferously in favor of making four-year public universities and pre-kindergarten free for all Americans regardless of income-level. Critics of Sanders, like Buttigieg and Biden, question why the government should offer free education to the children of wealthy Americans, instead proposing means-testing so that only low and middle-income Americans would access expanded federal support for education programs.
Income inequality is a central theme of the campaign. While Sanders and Warren go farther than the other candidates in their vocal critique of corporate greed and corruption, all candidates agree that the system is badly stacked against working people and propose progressive policies to combat economic inequality.
The most prominent, divisive, and direct proposal to slash income inequality in the U.S. are two plans by Senators Warren and Sanders to institute a new tax on the total value of all personal assets. Currently the federal government levies progressive taxes on household income, yet Sanders and Warren argue that an added wealth tax would help pay for new government spending on social programs and reduce the concentration of wealth in the top 1% stemming from their control of assets (like real estate and financial securities), that are largely untaxed.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have shown an openness to the idea of a wealth tax, but neither has proposed a version of their own, and both shy away from endorsing their rivals’ plans. Instead, along with Biden and Bloomberg, they focus their ire on President Trump, calling for a repeal of his tax cuts for the wealthy — a signature domestic policy achievement of his first term.
All Democratic candidates roundly criticize Trump’s haphazard approach to foreign policy that has isolated many traditional American allies and seen the U.S. withdraw from landmark international treaties like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Yet, while questioning his leadership, the field offers a choice between a more traditional, hawkish American foreign policy espoused by Buttigieg and Biden, and the anti-interventionist stances of Senators Sanders and Warren.
Often emphasizing their past experience — Buttigieg as a naval intelligence officer, and Biden as Vice President and longtime ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the two candidates oppose major cuts in military funding and have signaled their wiliness to respond to Chinese aggression with a military build-up in Asia. Sanders, on the other hand, advocates for a clean break from traditional American foreign policy. He attacks Joe Biden for his vocal support of the Iraq War and the power of the Washington “military-industrial complex” that has led the country into “endless wars”.
Because of Trump’s unorthodox mix of foreign policy positions — from disparaging NATO to attacking many in his own party for “endless wars” in the Middle East — his views sometimes align with the more hawkish Democrats, yet other times with more liberal candidates like Sanders, such as in the case of pursuing diplomatic ties with North Korea even while the country maintains a nuclear program.
Money in Politics
As a part of their crusade against the “millionaires and billionaires” who control economic and political power in this country, Warren and Sanders notably eschew holding private fundraisers with their backers to raise much-needed campaign cash. While other Democrats in the race do bemoan the major influence of special interests and PACs (political action committees) in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, no one else has taken the pledge to refrain from holding private fundraisers with wealthy donors. Buttigieg, confronted by Senator Warren over his campaign financing at a recent debate, defended his actions saying, “We need to defeat Donald Trump. We shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back.” Bloomberg, notably, is not taking campaign contributions from anyone. While he argues that self-funding his campaign frees him from special interests, Sanders and Warren have bitterly attacked this strategy as an effort to “buy the election”, symbolic of what they view as the oligarchic control of the political system by wealthy individuals and corporations.
Democrats lament Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and much-publicized policy to “build the wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border, calling for mass deportations. Yet, much of the legal basis for his heightened enforcement measures find precedent in the deportation policies of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. Now, more progressive Democrats like Warren and Sanders are calling for reforms that would downgrade crossing the border from a criminal to a civil offence and pause or permanently halt deportations. More moderate candidates like Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar reject what they view as Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, but hold back from a wholesale rewriting of immigration law to make entry to the U.S. easier. Nevertheless, Republicans are eager to attack those Democratic candidates who support providing undocumented immigrants with government-funded health care — a group that includes Biden, as well as Warren and Sanders.
The single most discussed policy proposal in the 2020 primaries is likely Medicare-for-All. Agreeing that Obamacare did not go far enough to address healthcare needs in the country, all candidates currently call for the creation of a new “public option” of government-run healthcare in order to achieve universal coverage. Moderate candidates like Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar propose to offer the public option in competition with the existing private market (“Medicare for All Who Want It”). Sanders, most radically, calls for the elimination of the private health insurance market, while Warren supports that end goal but differs on her timeline in moving to a fully public system. Critics of Medicare-for-All contend that it is unrealistic and un-American to simply legislate away 18% of the current U.S. economy based in healthcare. Sanders, in contrast, argues that the U.S. will only see benefits like cost savings within a fully public system.
The graph above displays the positions of leading U.S. Democratic Party candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed based on 30 salient issue-statements, related to highly relevant policy issues of the current political debate. These salient issues were selected by a team of academics, experts and journalists, based on a close examination of the candidates’ platforms and political (media) discourse. Given that the policy proposals of Democratic frontrunners closely resemble each other, a selection of the most contentious issues was made, as means of ensuring that the underlying differences between the candidates is displayed. In order to reveal where Democrats stand in comparison to the stances of President Donald Trump, the latter was also coded on the same issue-statements. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “economically left-wing” or “economically right-wing”, “culturally liberal” or “culturally conservative”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “strongly disagree”, to “disagree”, to “neutral”, to “agree”, to “strongly agree”. The positions of candidates on these statements are coded in accordance with their stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances.
The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the candidates on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the liberal-conservative dimension). The precise candidate position is located in the centers of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the candidate answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, candidates in favor of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; candidates in favor of both culturally liberal and culturally conservative policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the liberal-conservative axis.
The arrows in the spatial map indicate in what ideological direction a given policy is “pulling” or “pushing” the candidates. All policies, exemplified by keywords, steer a candidate in a given ideological direction. For instance, if the arrow is pointing leftwards, this would mean that the policy it relates to is steering the candidate towards the economical left. If the arrow is pointing downwards, this would mean that the policy it relates to is steering the candidate towards cultural conservatism.
The research for this article was conducted by Kieskompas — Election Compass and commissioned by FES. The original publication in German can be found here, as well as its report. The U.S. Democratic Primaries’ Election Compass can be found here.