The 2020 Democratic primary field has been touted as far more liberal than that of previous years.

Candidates have proposed a number of progressive policies that were not even under consideration in the last presidential election, such as decriminalizing border crossings, levying higher taxes on the wealthy and offering reparations to descendants of enslaved men and women.

What’s more, two of the field’s most liberal candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, still sit atop the national polls. Is this apparent leftward shift in the Democratic Party real? And if so, what’s driving it?

To answer this, we looked at data from the General Social Survey that tracks public opinion on the role of government in a variety of different policy areas between 1986 and 2018. And while that means we can’t track opinions on specific policies that have dominated the 2020 race, like Medicare for All, we can look at how public opinion more broadly has changed in the last 30 years.

First, the data shows that Democrats have indeed become more liberal over time, particularly on questions related to race and immigration.

For instance, the share of Democrats who think the government has a special obligation to help improve black people’s standard of living due to past discrimination increased by over 20 percentage points between 1986 and 2018, while the share who think the number of immigrants to the U.S. should increase rose from 10 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2018.

Democrats also moved to the left on health care, but as you can see in the charts below, Democrats have long been supportive of the government taking a more active role in health care, whereas support for issues of race and immigration have experienced a sharp uptick in recent years. (Of course, it’s not just Democrats moving to the left on these issues. There’s evidence that the general electorate is becoming more liberal, too.)
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