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CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

Dan McCready is the kind of candidate who helped Democrats win the House in 2018.

He’s a Marine Corps veteran who vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker. He doesn’t support “Medicare for all” or an assault weapons ban. And he came less than half a percentage point short of winning a fraud-marred election in a North Carolina district that voted for Donald J. Trump by 12 points in 2016. He’ll have another chance in the redo election of the state’s Ninth District on Tuesday.

As Democrats mull what kind of candidate has the best chance against President Trump, it may be worth considering which candidates fared best in last year’s midterm elections. Over all, moderate Democrats who disavowed Ms. Pelosi and Medicare for all fared better than those to the left of them, according to an Upshot analysis of the 2018 midterm results.

On the debate stage Thursday in Houston, many Democrats will be taking the opposite approach. Some of the debates so far have highlighted unpopular positions like busing, decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, providing health insurance to undocumented immigrants and abolishing private health insurance.

If the Democratic nominee did wind up embracing a more left-leaning agenda, there is no way to be sure that there would be an electoral penalty. But decades of research suggest that ideologically moderate candidates tend to do well in American elections. The advantage of nominating an ideologically moderate versus an extreme candidate may be smaller in today’s more polarized era, but it still seems to exist.

In Republican-held congressional districts, the Democratic candidates who supported Medicare for all, for instance, fared as much as a net three points worse than those who did not, after controlling for other factors like recent presidential and congressional election results.

Candidates who supported Medicare for all probably differ in other ways from those who opposed it. But Medicare for all is a good proxy for a certain kind of candidate favored by the activist left, and that kind of candidate did a bit worse in last year’s elections.

Similarly, candidates who opposed Ms. Pelosi fared an additional 2.5 points better than those who did not, even after controlling for whether a candidate supported Medicare for all.

It is worth cautioning that the precise effects of moderation — here a cumulative five points compared with someone who supported Ms. Pelosi and Medicare for all — depend on several factors. It makes a difference whether you look at all congressional districts or just the relatively competitive ones (say, those Mr. Trump won by less than 20 points) where voters might have gotten to know the candidates. It also matters whether to include fund-raising success, because moderates tended to raise more money. But the advantage of moderation holds no matter the series of choices.

A substantial body of research shows effects fairly similar to what’s observed here. It’s also roughly equivalent to the gap between the front-runner Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in national polls.

This doesn’t mean that Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders are doomed to do a few points worse than Mr. Biden. These figures are basically averages, and while Democratic Medicare for all opponents tended to fare better on average, not all did. It is even possible that Mr. Trump is so weak that Democrats could win even if they did alienate centrist voters — though Mr. Trump’s seemingly persistent advantage in the Electoral College may raise the burden on Democrats to appeal to more conservative areas.

And the midterms do not disprove an important argument about how a more left-leaning Democrat might win a presidential election. Many left-leaning Democrats argue, for instance, that they can mobilize a new coalition of young, nonwhite voters who typically sit on the sidelines of politics. These voters are generally unrepresented in the House battleground districts. Even if these kinds of voters were well represented, few House candidates could reasonably hope to mobilize a new coalition of irregular voters in their districts. The sort of less engaged voters who don’t even participate in presidential elections aren’t paying close attention to individual House campaigns.

But the House results are nonetheless a reminder that turnout isn’t everything. Last year, Mr. McCready outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 result in the district by 11 points, even though the partisan composition of the electorate was essentially unchanged and the black share of the electorate was lower than it was in 2016. In our final poll of North Carolina’s Ninth, 52 percent of those surveyed approved of Mr. Trump, and just 41 percent disapproved. The very same respondents backed the Republican Mark Harris by just 0.5 points over Mr. McCready.

In her pursuit of the governorship in Georgia in 2018, Stacey Abrams improved by a modest 3.7 points over Mrs. Clinton’s result in the state, a smaller increase than Democrats nationwide, even though she succeeded in increasing the black share of the electorate. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps surprisingly, ran three points worse than Mrs. Clinton in her Massachusetts Senate victory in 2018.

The presidential election, of course, could be very different. Patterns in congressional voting might not hold up in a higher-turnout, higher-stakes election. The pivotal states could end up differing from the House battlegrounds or the nation in important ways that change the calculus. And Mr. Trump’s divisive style brings its own uncertainties.

It has been argued, for instance, that nonwhite and female candidates might be at a disadvantage against Mr. Trump among swing voters in the Rust Belt, even though there is little evidence that nonwhite or female candidates do worse than white or male candidates as a general proposition. According to our analysis, a candidate’s race and gender were essentially irrelevant to results in last year’s House elections.

Maybe presidential elections or Mr. Trump are different, and maybe the kind of election where race and gender matter more is one where ideology matters less. Maybe mass television appeal and superficial markers of strength, leadership or masculinity would matter more in a high-turnout election, when less educated and less political engaged voters who know nothing about Medicare for all will flock to the polls after a year of watching two candidates dominate television coverage. There is no comparison to a congressional race, so perhaps the congressional results should be taken with a grain of salt.

But there is a difference between not being sure about candidate “electability” and knowing nothing at all about it. The evidence for the advantage of nominating relatively moderate candidates exists all the way to the present, even possibly tonight when the polls close in North Carolina.

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