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Analysis: As the Democratic old guard frets, Bernie Sanders finds a Texas foothold

Sanders' success in Texas is an expression of a real change that, given the very demographics Democrats have been anticipating for years, will continue to shape the party’s electoral fortunes.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at his campaign rally in Austin on Feb. 23, 2020.

Many Democratic strategists and elected officials in Texas have joined their national comrades fretting over the prospect of Bernie Sanders as the Democrats’ standard bearer in their crusade to prevent Donald Trump’s reelection. The concerns have been particularly acute as anti-Sanders Texas Democrats worry over the party’s prospects for flipping congressional and state legislative seats. The common denominator in the fretting — captured in recent Texas Tribune story featuring interviews with Democratic elected officials and consultants — is that Sanders is too far to the left of the Texas Democratic electorate.

But Sanders is as much an expression of changing conditions as he is an agent of change. As Sanders might be quick to paraphrase, he may be making history, but as a group, Texas Democrats have gotten more liberal over the last decade. Data from the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll reveals the splash Sanders makes in the ideological currents defining Texas’ Democratic Party, while a larger body of UT/TT Poll data over the last 10 years shows the share of self-identified liberals gradually but steadily increasing as Texas Democrats increasingly reflect the national ideological sorting of voters between the two major parties.

Support for the most progressive candidates in the most recent UT/Texas Tribune Poll comes from expected constituencies among Texas Democrats. Among self-identified liberals, 31% of Democrats preferred Sanders, while 22% preferred Elizabeth Warren. Among those who identified as “extremely liberal,” most preferred either Sanders (45%) or Warren (30%). Sanders was the top choice of Democratic primary voters under 40 (34%), followed at some distance by Warren (13%). The top choice of voters over 40 was Joe Biden.

Biden continues to lead Sanders in Texas among Democrats age 45 and older, while Sanders is by far the most favored candidate among voters under 30. As Democrats vow yet again to tip the partisan balance by bringing new, young voters to the polls, those voters remain a small share of overall turnout, even as they become a larger part of the electorate. Of course, should Sanders falter or have the nomination wrested from him, the fear that his young followers will turn out for another candidate is real — as is the expectation that they will turn out in droves if he is in fact the nominee.

Sanders has less than majority support in a crowded field in which the votes for Democratic moderates are divided among several candidates, as his skeptics note. The primacy of the divided moderate vote is the foundation for the argument —now back in vogue after Biden’s “firewall” win in South Carolina and Pete Buttigieg’s decision to suspend his campaign — that consolidation behind Biden will reassert a center-left Democratic majority. In the UT/TT Poll, Biden ran first among moderates (27%) followed by Michael Bloomberg with 16% —with Sanders in third with 12%.

However, trend data over the last 10 years shows the share of moderates in the Texas Democratic Party declining at the same time as the share of liberals increased. Between 2008 and 2016, the share of Democrats who identified as “liberal” was just under 47%. In polling from 2017 through 2019, the average increased 12 percentage points, to 59%. In the same time frames, the number of moderates declined from an average of 46% in polls from 2008 to 2016, to an average of 29% in polling conducted between 2017 and 2019. In the most recent UT/TT Poll, 64% of Democrats identified as liberal, compared with only 27% who identified as moderate. In October 2012, right before Barack Obama’s reelection (in which he lost Texas by 12 percentage points), 43% of Texas Democrats identified as liberal, 45% as moderate.

As the moderate presence has given way to a larger share of liberals, liberal Democrats have also become more intense in their liberalism. Among Democrats who identified as liberal in the February 2014 UT/TT Poll, 20% leaned liberal, 17% described themselves as “somewhat liberal,” and 9% as “extremely liberal.” Six years later, in February 2020, 16% leaned liberal, 29% were somewhat liberal, and 19% were “extremely liberal.” The average percentage of Democrats who described themselves as “extremely liberal” in UT/TT polling from 2014 and 2015 was 11.5%; in 2018 and 2019 polls, the average increased to 21.5%.

A different look at the ideological preferences in the most prominent quarters of the Texas Democratic electorate offers some surprises about where this liberalism resides within the party.

A recurring question in UT/TT polling channels Goldilocks to ask Democrats whether they think Democratic elected officials in Texas are too liberal, not liberal enough, or liberal enough: 44% said Democratic elected officials were not liberal enough, only 6% said they were too liberal, and 30% said they were just right. While this isn’t a direct measure of support for the Democratic socialist Sanders, who is definitely not a Texas elected official and is arguably beyond the normal description of “liberal,” it does bear on the broad judgment of Democratic consultants and candidates wringing their hands about Sanders’ potential impact on “their” voters.

The biggest gap in Democrats’ assessments of their elected officials’ liberalism is by race: 58% of white Democrats want them more liberal, compared with 39% of Latinos and 26% of African American Democrats. In the suburbs, where professional Democrats seem to most fear Sanders’ destructive impact on their prospects, 46% of Democratic voters find their elected officials insufficiently liberal — slightly higher than urban Democrats (43%). There is no appreciable difference between older and younger Democrats on this measure. Those with college degrees were somewhat more likely to draw the same conclusion than those without, but not by a wide margin (40% and 49%, respectively).

This intersection of racial and generational tensions within the Democratic coalition — evident in the results and the exit polling in South Carolina, where older black voters fueled Biden’s victory— is evident in Texas, too. While sample sizes prevent confident slicing of the UT/TT data by party, age and race, Sanders’ and Biden’s division of Latino and black primary voters in the UT/TT Poll and most other Texas polling suggests white liberals and younger black and Latino Democrats are inclined to support more aggressively progressive candidates.

White urban liberals’ embrace of Sanders coexists uneasily with the centrality of black and Latino voting blocs, which are demonstrably less enthused about Bernie’s revolution — but also, taken together, are historically more likely to show up to vote. A Sanders nomination would test the durability of these voters’ partisan commitments in the general election, much as the nomination of almost any other candidate would test the party loyalties of Sanders’ youthful followers. Either way, in Texas, these tensions strain plans to use Trump’s galvanizing effect on Democrats of all ideological stripes to continue chipping away at Republican majorities in the congressional and state legislative delegations.

These consequential short-term Democratic problems notwithstanding, the Democratic Party that Texas consultants and poobahs have presided over during many years in the political wilderness has changed during their exile from power. The question with the most long-term consequences is whether Democratic incumbents and operatives will recognize that they have to adapt to the realities of their present coalition and close ranks if Sanders wins the nomination. His success in Texas is an expression of a real change that, given the very demographics Democrats have been anticipating for years, will continue to shape the party’s electoral fortunes, even if the received wisdom about where to find the center no longer holds.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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