The scoffing started almost as soon as news broke that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset of Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District last week.
Ocasio-Cortez hails from the hard left wing of the Democratic party, and unabashedly so. She campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, touts more government involvement in the health care sector, and took time from her campaign schedule to head to Texas and protest immigration laws. Some voices on the right could hardly contain their glee as they watched a democratic socialist bounce a man who would be Speaker, should the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in November.
For some — including President Donald Trump — Ocasio-Cortez serves as Exhibit A of a party careening uncontrolled and leftward. No way Democrats can win back control of the House of Representatives if they’re willing to nominate candidates like this, say the skeptics — not with candidates so ideologically out of touch with mainstream America. How can a party which nominates someone like Ocasio-Cortez dare to ask for votes in West Virginia, or North Dakota, or Indiana? The argument makes logical sense.
The counter-argument: Elections don’t work that way.
Voters simply don’t make decisions on whom to support based on ideology. In fact, the opposite is true: Research shows that voters are more likely to go along with issue positions if they believe their chosen candidate or party supports those positions, rather than picking the party they support based on what they believe. People let their partisan allegiances color their perception of facts, too.
You know who does respond to ideology? Party activists: The volunteers who knock on doors, make phone calls, and make annoying social media posts in support of their preferred candidate. They’re the loud voices who establish public support for a candidate — and give other voters (and donors) license to join what looks like a winning team.
No candidate really loses an election because they are “too liberal” or “too conservative.” Candidates lose because they don’t connect with voters. Ideological candidates win all the time, so long as they are able to inspire activists with their views and charm voters with their charisma. Presidential elections since 1980 have seen candidates of varying ideologies elected; the winner has always been whichever candidate was better able to define the agenda and terms of debate.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory spawned immediate comparisons to David Brat’s 2014 primary upset of Eric Cantor. It’s a good analogy, and not just because few people expected either result. Each was, at its time, viewed by some commentators as a harbinger that the ideological wings of the respective parties had gone off the deep end. But recall that in 2014, Cantor’s loss came just ahead of major Republican victories that solidified a House majority and turned the Senate red. Brat may have dinged the Republican establishment, but his big win signified grassroots energy among party faithful.
Nationwide, Democrats have other obstacles standing in the way of their would-be victory in November; a laser focus on opposing President Donald Trump has not sparked a big generic ballot lead as of yet. Their leaders are not popular.
It’s still early, though. Midterms elections feature notoriously lower turnout — and draw less attention — than Presidential election years. And smaller electorates typically favor candidates with a passionate core group of supporters.
Watching a reasonably liberal party leader crash in June may have been painful for some establishment Democrats. But it could also be a sign of bigger things to come.