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These are the popular ideas progressives can win with (and some unpopular ones to avoid)

Crackdowns on pharmaceutical and credit card companies lead the way.

People living with diabetes and health care advocates rallied in front of the New York Stock Exchange to commemorate World Diabetes Day in 2019, calling attention to high prescription costs.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Voters are interested in quite a few progressive policies that are nowhere near the top of the national agenda — like stricter enforcement of the Clean Air Act, capping credit card interest rates, rewriting bankruptcy law to favor workers, cleaning up lead, and legalizing commercial marijuana.

At the same time, many other progressive ideas — including some that have gained a lot of momentum even among more moderate Democrats over the past year — poll much worse.

Those are a couple of the takeaways of a big project launched by the progressive think tank and advocacy organization Data for Progress. The group went out in the field to poll 56 policy ideas and recently shared the results with Vox.

Each one was tested with explicit partisan framing and pro-and-con arguments to avoid the typical problem with issue polling where all kinds of things can easily be made to sound nice. (You can see all the questions with pro and con arguments here and a table of the poll results here.) The group also aimed to be credible, sharing the full results, including the finding that several ideas the organization is associated with — including abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ending money bail, and cutting military spending — poll quite poorly.

Given that context, the much-fretted-over idea of Medicare-for-all, which the group supports, turns out to be so-so in support — neither clearly popular as its fans would like nor the electoral death knell its opponents fear. But it’s far from the most popular idea in the quiver. If progressives want to win tough races, they’d do well to try to identify their best issues and do everything in their power to highlight them.

Winning arguments on health care

The most popular progressive ideas on health care aren’t as broadly sweeping as Medicare-for-all but are still distinctly left-wing — and the concepts are outside the current boundaries of Washington discussion.

In particular, three ideas to lower prescription drug prices — revoking patent rights on the most expensive drugs, government-run manufacturing of generic drugs when there isn’t much competition in the market, and a big boost in government funding for pharmaceutical R&D — all hit the ball out of the park in terms of popularity.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

In each case, these policies stand up to respondents being presented with credible counterarguments.

  • On patent licensing, survey takers were told “Republicans opposing this proposal say that it would reduce incentives for companies to invest in new drugs, harming patients and destroying jobs. They say the United States benefits from having the world’s best pharmaceutical sector.”
  • On government investments, “Republicans opposing this proposal say this is a massive investment with little chance of payoff and the private sector will do a better job investing in drugs that people will need.”
  • On government manufacturing, “Republicans opposing this proposal say it would result in the government manufacturing drugs that aren’t needed, and that inferior government-produced drugs could lead to deaths from patients who take them instead of name brand drugs.”
  • And on government negotiation of lower prices, “Republicans opposing this proposal say that it would reduce incentives for companies to invest in new drugs, harming patients and destroying jobs. They say the United States benefits from having the world’s best pharmaceutical sector.”

These big progressive ideas aren’t alternatives to Medicare-for-all — indeed, the vision presupposes taking tough measures to squeeze the pharmaceutical industry — but as is often the case, talking about specific reforms with clear upsides and no big tax increases is more popular than talking about a big, abstract package.

Meanwhile, Medicare-for-all isn’t a big vote-winner in these message tests, but it’s not necessarily a loser either.

Medicare-for-all is a mixed bag

Data for Progress tested four versions of a Medicare-for-all message:

  1. “Some Democrats in Congress are proposing a Medicare for All system in which all Americans get health insurance from a single government plan.”
  2. “Some Democrats in Congress are proposing a Medicare for All system in which all Americans get health insurance from a single government plan, with the option to purchase supplemental private insurance if they want.”
  3. “Some Democrats in Congress are proposing a Medicare for All system in which all Americans get health insurance from a single government plan. They would pay for this through a payroll tax on employers.”
  4. “Some Democrats in Congress are proposing a Medicare for All system in which all Americans get health insurance from a single government plan. This would be paid for by having employers pay the government what they currently pay health insurance companies to cover their employees and a tax on accumulations of wealth greater than $10 million.”

In each case, respondents were told that “Democrats supporting this proposal say that the average American wouldn’t pay more each year because the plan would eliminate premiums and copays while allowing Americans to keep their doctor if they want” while “Republicans opposing this proposal say this is socialized medicine that would cause Americans to lose their doctors, wait years to get access to care and lead to a trillion dollar tax hike.”

In all four cases, the proposal is slightly above water (more respondents supporting than opposing), and a large number of respondents are undecided.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

That’s reason to believe Medicare-for-all is not the political disaster that moderate Democrats fear. But it’s also clearly not the greatest message for Democratic politicians either.

A candidate like Sen. Bernie Sanders would be well-advised to pivot his message to highlight some more specific, more concrete ideas on prescription drug affordability — something that even Americans broadly satisfied with the health care status quo worry about. But a more moderate Democrat should consider seriously raising his or her aspirations in taking on Big Pharma — recognizing that the public is enthusiastic about some pretty drastic measures in this area.

And that’s not unique to prescription drugs. There are several overwhelmingly popular progressive ideas that so far have not featured heavily in the 2020 campaign but deserve to be taken up.

There are some very popular progressive ideas

The most popular progressive ideas Data for Progress found were making the Clean Air Act stricter, capping credit card interest rates at 15 percent, giving 12 weeks of paid family leave, requiring companies to give worker salaries and benefits priority over creditors in bankruptcy, and passing commercial legalization of marijuana.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Some of these ideas, like paid family leave, are widely supported by Democrats and thus haven’t been a subject of argument during the 2020 process. But marijuana legalization is something the major candidates disagree about that so far hasn’t featured prominently in televised debates. It’s an area, however, where the “extreme” position of full legalization is very popular and where it would be smart for the ultimate nominee to have a sharp, engaging, high-profile dispute with Trump and his old-school drug warrior Attorney General Bill Barr.

Trump is running ads trying to court black voters by touting criminal justice reform, and many Democrats are worried it might work. Having a robust policy argument about marijuana is a good way to clarify the stakes on criminal justice issues while keeping public opinion firmly on progressives’ side.

Sanders formally supports the credit card interest rate cap idea, but he doesn’t talk about it much on the campaign trail. If he becomes the nominee, he’ll need to break out of his progressive base and try harder to appeal to swing voters. That may involve “pivoting to the center” on some topics, but elevating the credit card issue in both his rhetoric and his television ads would be a good way to reach the center of public opinion without compromising his principles.

The Trump administration has been relentlessly hostile to clean water measures, and Democrats have scarcely pushed back. But this polling indicates that tougher clean water rules are very popular, and predictable arguments (“Republicans opposing this proposal say that the Clean Water Act is already enough and further regulation would be too broad and would limit businesses’ and farmers’ abilities to pursue their work due to burdensome regulations”) don’t change that.

Again, just because some progressive ideas are winners doesn’t mean they all are. Activist groups often release polls showing their favorite ideas are popular. Data for Progress is trying to do credible research, and that means discovering that some ideas they like are badly underwater.

Progressive ideas people hate

By far the least popular idea is reparations for slavery, which remains politically toxic despite some support in intellectual circles. When presented with the counterargument that reparations would require tax increases and “only further inflame racial tensions,” the idea draws a 21-58 support/oppose split.

Taxing sugar is nearly as unpopular (a potential red flag on Mike Bloomberg, who pushed somewhat similar ideas as mayor of New York City) as is the idea onetime candidate Beto O’Rourke floated of stripping churches of tax-exempt status if they refuse to serve the LGBTQ community.

Most likely nobody is going to run on those policies, but there are some other ideas in the mix from leading candidates that Data for Progress found to be widely unpopular.

Sanders is on the record supporting the idea of sectoral bargaining, where instead of unions negotiating contracts company by company they do it across an entire sector of the economy — setting wage rates for the entire fast food industry, for example. This is a common practice in European countries, the large and influential Service Employees International Union is enthusiastic about it, and it’s made considerable inroads in moderate circles like the Center for American Progress to the extent that former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has joined Sanders in embracing the idea.

Unfortunately, when faced with the counterargument “nobody should be forced to enter into a contract they don’t want to, and that bargaining at the industry level would make it difficult for businesses to remain flexible and make important decisions,” it becomes very unpopular, with just 28 percent support to 47 percent opposition.

Decriminalizing unauthorized crossing of the US border is also unpopular (30 percent approval to 52 percent disapproval), and given the relative lack of interest group pressure on the issue, Democrats like Sanders who endorsed this idea might want to consider simply flip-flopping.

Another disappointment is that Data for Progress found just 33 percent support (and 47 percent opposition) to a proposal “cutting back on our military spending for wasteful procurement of weapons systems.”

Democrats supporting this proposal say the military budget has ample fat that could be trimmed, such as the F-35 program, which is projected to cost $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of the plane.

Republicans opposing this proposal say that cuts to military spending will leave soldiers on the frontline vulnerable and that as a share of the total government spending, the military hasn’t increased over time.

One theme that emerges from looking across the range of policy topics is that voters generally do not evaluate policies in terms of how experts would place them on a left-right spectrum. Sometimes more “moderate” ideas are actually less popular than more left-wing alternatives.

On climate, regulation > pricing

The factional politics of climate change have shifted around a lot over time. A decade or so ago, a carbon tax was considered the true progressive approach to climate change. Moderates preferred to talk about “green jobs,” but Democratic Party leaders opted instead for a cap-and-trade program.

Today, it’s the left faction of the party that has its “Green New Deal,” while the moderates like carbon taxes. And nobody wants to talk about cap and trade anymore after the ill will created by the failure of the Waxman-Markey bill in President Barack Obama’s first term. Polling suggests that cap and trade is still the most popular option, standing at 46 percent support with 30 percent opposed.

Policies like a “Green New Deal, which phase out the use of fossil fuels, with the government providing clean-energy jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector” are not quite as popular. Faced with the counterargument that “Republicans opposing this proposal say this would cost many jobs in the energy sector, hurt the economy by massively raising taxes, and wouldn’t make much of a difference in climate change because of carbon emissions from China,” this comes out as a 45-35 split.

A carbon tax, by contrast, is supported by 38 percent of the public and opposed by 38 percent.

Interestingly, pure regulatory fiat does best of all. Told that “some Democrats in Congress are proposing a policy that would transition the economy to 100 percent clean energy by 2045” but “Republicans opposing this proposal say that these proposals would raise the cost of electricity and eliminate millions of well-paying jobs in the coal and oil sector,” a strong 51 percent of the public supports the idea, with just 30 percent opposed.

On other topics, the moderates win

Things look different with higher education.

Promising four years of free college is underwater (41 to 45), but a more modest proposal offering two years of free community college to anyone who wants it does well at 51-36. Canceling student loans is somewhere in the middle, at 43-40.

Similarly, the standard establishment Democratic call to create a path to citizenship for long-settled undocumented people that involves “paying back taxes, passing a criminal background check and maintaining employment in the United States” continues to poll pretty well. Even when faced with the argument that “Republicans opposing this proposal say there should be no reward for entering the country illegally, and that providing amnesty in this manner would encourage more illegal immigration,” the path to citizenship still carries a decent 44-38 support margin.

That margin isn’t good enough to terrorize swing-state Republicans into actually voting for it, but there’s certainly no reason for the typical Democrat to shy against the party’s longstanding support for this idea.

Abolishing ICE, by contrast, is clearly less popular, at 35-46. Especially since there may be less interest in abolishing ICE if you could get the path to citizenship done, it’s not clear what you’d accomplish by talking about this. Progressives looking to push the boundaries of debate should instead consider policies that are below 50 percent in support, but still easily above water with lots of persuadable voters.

Promising progressive ideas

Colorado gives free IUDs to women who want them, putting the state on the cutting edge of a trend toward long-lasting reversible contraceptives that’s greatly reduced the number of unplanned pregnancies nationwide.

Taking this idea federal polls at 49 percent to just 35 percent opposed, even in the face of the argument that “it’s not the taxpayer’s role to fund birth control. They say that taxpayers with religious objections to funding such a program shouldn’t be forced to pay for others’ birth control.”

Data for Progress found a bunch more ideas like this — innovative progressive proposals that are fairly popular and just need champions to make them better known.

Taxing companies that spend more than $500,000 on lobbying is 48-24. And spending money on green housing retrofits is 47-33 (a related proposal to spend money on removing lead paint is a home run at 57-23), and spending more on public housing is 47-33. A “policy that would give grants to states, cities, nonprofits, schools, and other local partners to create a network of childcare options that would be available to every family” is 46-35, and more spending on mass transit is 45-35 — all after the argument that this spending will lead to tax increases on the middle class.

Meanwhile, policies with zero cost are popular. Ending the war in Yemen polls at 46-28, and an aggressive anti-corruption package that would bar members of Congress from owning stock in individual companies polls at 51-26.

You need to be smart, not “moderate”

Progressives are wrong to dismiss concerns about electability as just a smokescreen for people unwilling to challenge the status quo. Swing voters are real, the persuasion/mobilization trade-off is overwhelmingly fake, and candidates who take popular positions do better.

But that doesn’t mean the public is crying out for “centrist” policies — deficit reduction, Social Security and Medicare changes, Pigovian taxes (like a carbon tax), charter schools, and extensive means-testing of public programs — as conventionally defined in Washington.

Taxing the rich to give people free stuff is generally popular across many categories of stuff, as are broad regulatory mandates whose costs are perceived as falling on big corporations rather than individual consumers.

Other left-wing ideas, like reparations and cutting back on military spending, poll very poorly. There’s no latent demand for across-the-board leftist policymaking, but also no common property of left-wingness that renders all left policies unpopular. A soda tax, for example, is politically toxic despite likely technocrat support, but the leftmost stance on marijuana is wildly popular.

Some broad patterns can be detected in what voters like and don’t like, but the clearest pattern of all is that public opinion is somewhat fickle. Even in this polarized era, tons of voters don’t fit neatly into ideological boxes.

Taking extreme and unpopular views is going to make it hard to win elections and deliver on your agenda. But the opposite of “extreme and unpopular” views isn’t necessarily “moderate” views, it’s being smart and doing your homework on what’s popular.

There are easily enough bold progressive ideas out there that are popular — the ones on this list, but also well-known ideas like raising the minimum wage — that there’s little practical cost to urging politicians to emphasize the popular ones while steering clear of unpopular stances.

Maybe progressives will win tons of elections, implement all these ideas, then run out of stuff that polls well and be unsure of what to do next.

But that would be a pretty nice — and extremely hypothetical — problem to have.