Seth Moskowitz

*This is a guest post submitted by Seth Moskowitz who writes over at Every Second Year. We have reposted this piece here (with only minor edits) at his request.

The Democratic Party’s presidential contenders are straining to prove their progressive credentials. Policies considered unworkable by Hillary Clinton just three years ago — Medicare for All, $15 Minimum Wage, Free Public College — are the emerging Democratic litmus tests. These policies, pioneered by Sanders in 2016, have been endorsed by nearly every Democrat in the race. In the coming months, the Democratic field will face new litmus tests that will strain even the most progressive candidates.

The Democratic Party’s leftward lurch is not surprising given the changing ideologies of Democratic voters. Over half of Democrats now consider themselves ‘liberal’ — double the percentage owning the label in 1994 and up 10% since 2010. But if the Democratic Party hopes to defeat Trump in 2020, they will need to win over independents and moderates. An unrestrained slide to the left will have electoral consequences.

The big questions are:

  1. What are the established and emerging Democratic litmus tests?
  2. How will these litmus tests affect Democratic 2020 prospects?

The table below shows 10 progressive litmus tests and each one’s support among the top tier of declared Democratic candidates, Democratic party members and the American public. The Democratic fundamentals — Support for Same Sex Marriage, Pro-Choice, etc. — are not included. Any Democrat who doesn’t support these would be running about ten to forty years too late. For a comprehensive look at the contemporary Democratic orthodoxy, take a look at the Post Script at the bottom of this post.

Green means a candidate supports a policy, yellow means a candidate is waffling on a policy, red means a candidate does not support a policy and white means a candidate has not made a clear public statement on an issue.

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The policies in the chart can be broken down into those that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats [>70%], Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates [>55%] and Only Popular Among the Progressive Base [<55%].

There is no good polling on the Green New Deal or Refusing Corporate PAC Donations. Because 77% of the public and 85% of Democrats think that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns,” Refusing Corporate PAC Money will be considered “Broadly Popular Among Democrats” and net favorable among the general public. Because the Green New Deal has unanimous support among the candidates, it will be considered Broadly Popular Among Democrats. Its popularity among the general public will remain undetermined due to the lack of polling.

Broadly Popular Among Democrats
Every Democratic contender supports an Assault Weapons Ban, a $15 Minimum Wage, Refusing Corporate PAC Money and The Green New Deal. This categorical unanimity — among even the least progressive candidates — signals that these are all new Democratic litmus tests.

Five of the six also support the other three policies — Medicare for All, Free Public College and Believe All Women/Me Too — that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats. Amy Klobuchar, who is implicitly running on her electability as a moderate, is the outlier. If Klobuchar capitulates on any of these or fails to break into the 20-30% range in polls, it is a signal that these are emerging Democratic litmus tests as well.

Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates
Every candidate, including Klobuchar, supports Overturning Citizens United — indicating that it, too, is a box Democrats must check. Warren and Harris have explicitly endorsed Slavery Reparations, Sanders is waffling and Booker, Gillibrand and Klobuchar have remained quiet.

If the rest of the field (besides Klobuchar) comes out in favor of Reparations, it means the progressive wing is successfully pulling candidates leftward — indicating that their influence is greater than anticipated.

Only Popular Among the Progressive Base
Abolish Ice is only popular among the progressive base. Gillibrand and Warren are the two lone candidates who have come out in support of AI. If Sanders’s, Harris’s and Booker’s refusal to endorse this policy spells their doom, it would signal that the base has a lock on the party and only true-blue, outright progressives can win the nomination.

So…how do these possible litmus tests break down?

Established Litmus Tests

  • Assault Weapons Ban
  • $15 Minimum Wage
  • Overturn Citizens United
  • Green New Deal
  • Refusing Corporate PAC Money

Emerging Litmus Tests

  • Medicare for All
  • Free Public College
  • Believe All Women/Me Too 

Possible Future Litmus Tests  

  • Slavery Reparations
  • Abolish Ice

Six of the nine policies are viewed favorably among the general public. The populist and wealth distribution policies have the strongest approval. This support, however, fluctuates depending on how the question is framed. Support for Medicare for All, for example, falls around 20 percent when people are told that it will require Americans to pay more in taxes.

“Culture war” issues like Believe All Women/Me Too, Slavery Reparations and Abolish Ice have the lowest levels of general support. The latter two, with public support in the mid-30s, could get Democrats into trouble in 2020. Democrats would be better off electorally running on populist and wealth-redistribution policies than culture war issues. If Democrats go the redistribution route — because support for these policies depends largely on how they are framed — their success will hinge on how well they present their argument to voters. Regardless, expect Republicans to continue portraying Democrats as extremists and highlighting their “calls for socialism” in 2020.  

There are more fringe ideas that could make their way into the Democratic mainstream. As some candidates start to fall behind in the polls, they may endorse increasingly ‘out there’ policies to win over progressives. By this time next year, we could have a field supporting a Universal Basic Income and Packing the Supreme Court.

It wouldn’t be unusual for one candidate to change the direction of an entire party. Just ask the man in the White House.


I will be improving and expanding the list of litmus tests as the primaries continue. Here’s what I have so far:

  • Wealth Redistribution (M4A, Free Public College, $15 Minimum Wage)
  • Racial Justice (Slavery Reparations, Black Lives Matter, Abolish Ice, Abolish Private Prisons)
  • Gender Equality/LGBTQ+ Rights (Believe All Women/Me Too, Same Sex Marriage),
  • Elections & Campaign Finance/Election Reform (Overturn Citizens United, Refuse CPAC Donations, D.C./Puerto Rico Statehood)
  • Climate Change/Environment (Green New Deal)
  • Etcetera (Assault Weapons Ban, Oppose Trump’s Wall)   

If you have any suggestions for additional categories or tests, send them to