The realities of the support for “Medicare for all” and “Defund the police” in swing districts are more complicated than we can imagine

The moderate and progressive Democrats have long debated regarding the ideological center of swing districts and states. On one hand, the moderates often claim that representatives cannot win swing districts if they support progressive policies. Many progressives, on the other hand, often think that they are the “silent majority” and supporting progressive policies are essential to win swing districts. This debate has resurfaced after the 2020 US election.

The debate started when moderate Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va), blamed “socialism” and “Defund the police” slogans for the underperformance of House Democrats. Another moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) blamed “socialized medicine”, a.k.a. “Medicare for all”, for Democrats’ underperformance. Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez (D-NY) challenged these accusations and highlighted the lack of robust digital media operation and canvassing as the primary reason for Democrats’ underperformance. While digital outreach and canvassing play an important role in election campaigns, it is not the only factor that influences the outcome of an election. Also, a straightforward support for or opposition against “Medicare for all” or “Defund the Police” can’t be held solely responsible for the underperformance of House Democrats. We should examine how swing district candidates choose different framings for “Medicare for all” or “Defund the police” to publicly present their views and analyze whether the support of a policy helps or hurts in swing districts.

Both Rep. Ocassio-Cortez and Senator Sanders (D-VT) highlighted the successful re-election of all co-sponsors of “Medicare for all”. Nevertheless, most of those co-sponsors ran in safe Democrat districts. Assessing how the co-sponsors of this bill who ran in Republican leaning swing districts, for example, Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45, Cook PVI R+3), Rep. Mike Levin (CA-49, Cook PVI R+1), Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02, Cook PVI R+1), Rep. Jared Golden (ME-02, Cook PVI R+2) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA-08, Cook PVI R+2) — framed the “Medicare for all” and “Defund the police” agenda in their campaign manifestos reveals some interesting dynamics.

Four out of these five representatives (Rep. Porter, Rep. Levin, Rep. Golden and Rep. Kirkpatrick) mentioned their support for “Medicare for all” on their webpages. However, most of them, except Rep. Porter, described this bill as their “ultimate goal” and emphasized their support for relatively less bold and “incremental” health care goals, such as protecting pre-existing conditions, Medicare extension and lowering prescription drug costs, in the meantime.

In the case of “Defunding the police,” although Rep. Levin, Rep. Kirkpatrick, and Rep. Cartwright cosponsored the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” none of them mentioned police violence on their websites. Rep. Porter was the only exception. She mentioned police brutality on her webpage and recently commented that the slogan “Defund the police” could not be held responsible for the under-performance of some Democrats. However, unlike Rep. Occasio-Cortez, she did not use the language of “significant reduction in the police budget” as her goal on her campaign webpage

Perhaps, most of these representatives, except Rep. Porter, did not consider police violence as major issues in their districts to include it on their webpage. Nevertheless, this did not prevent “Medicare for all” co-sponsors Rep. Golden from co-sponsoring “Defund cities that Defund the Police Act of 2020” or Rep. Cartwright from issuing a press release accusing his Republican opponent to try “Defunding the police” as his opponent proposed reducing the size of the government or Rep. Levin from displaying his endorsements from police officers’ associations on his campaign webpage to illustrate that he is not “soft-on-crime.” Therefore, the support for “Medicare for all” did not always translate into support for “Defund the police”.

A careful look at polls for different health care policies and “Defund the police” may further explain the rationales for actions of most of the swing district co-sponsors of “Medicare for all”. According to a poll conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, the support for “Medicare for all” increased up to 71% when participants of the poll were told “Medicare for all” would guarantee health insurance as a right but decreased to 37% when the same participants were told that “Medicare for all” could lead to higher taxes. The support for the incremental health care goals, e.g. support for “protecting pre-existing conditions” and “lowering drug costs”, did not fluctuate that much and ranged between 75–88%. Instead of focusing primarily on the “Medicare for all” agenda, most of these five swing district representatives emphasized on incremental health care goals while mentioning their support for “Medicare for all” and got re-elected. On the contrary, “Defund the police” stance is supported by less than 30% of the population nationally although redirecting the police budget to support community development is supported by a higher number of population (43%). This probably explains why most of these representatives were not even keen on proposing “reduction in the police budget” during their campaigns as the language would tie them with the relatively unpopular “Defund the police.”

Therefore, the actions of swing district co-sponsors of “Medicare for all” suggest a complicated reality of the swing districts. On one hand, support for “Medicare for all” worked in most swing districts if it was complemented with supporting more popular “incremental” health care policies in the short run. On the other hand, most representatives backed away from “Defund the police” or even “reduction in the police budget” slogan probably fearing that this would hurt them to be re-elected.

Unlike the suggestion of moderate democrats, the agenda of the entire Democratic party should not be dictated by the actions of these swing district co-sponsors, which would allow the median voters in these mostly non-Black districts dictate the agenda of all Democrat voters. However, it is important for progressives to gather a deromanticized picture of the complicated realities in swing districts as they devise their long-term campaign strategies.

I live in Massachusetts and work at a company in the field of wireless communications. I am an independent analyst of US politics.