What should “electable” mean?

I want to beat Trump as much as anybody does, but figuring out which candidate has the best chance isn’t as simple as many make it sound.


Democrats and other liberals may be splitting their loyalties among more than 20 candidates at the moment, but nearly all of us agree on one thing: It’s vital that we beat Donald Trump next year.

If Trump has four more years to assault the norms of democratic government, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, by 2024 the country will be virtually unrecognizable. For four more years, the US would be fighting for climate change rather than against it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court would rise from 5-4 to 6-3 or 7-2 — locking in for decades the advantages corporations have over workers and consumers, upholding all the tools of minority rule, and constantly inventing new rights for conservative white Christians. Executive-branch corruption would become even more blatant, with Congress unable even to investigate it, much less do anything about it.

We can’t let that happen.

Searching for the anti-Trump. So there’s very good reason why a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate lists “somebody who can beat Donald Trump” as their top criterion when looking for a candidate to support. Polls on this question are volatile and depend significantly on how the question is phrased, but all of them show electability as a huge factor. One poll in February found 56% of Democrats preferring “a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues, but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump” to “someone who agrees with you on most issues, but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump”. Only 33% made the opposite choice. A more recent poll phrased  the question differently [“What’s more important to you – that Democrats nominate the presidential candidate whose positions on the issues come closest to yours, or the candidate who seems most likely to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020?”] and showed smaller but still sizeable emphasis on winning [47% for “closer on the issues” vs. 40% for “more likely to win”].

Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate those results, because poll respondents undoubtedly assume that any Democrat will share certain core positions. Democratic candidates may, for example, disagree about whether universal health care is an immediate priority or a long-term goal, but none oppose it in principle. They may have more ambitious or less ambitious plans for dealing with climate change, but none argue — as Trump has — that Obama was already doing too much. Within these bounds, though, a large number of Democrats are willing to sacrifice ideological purity for someone they think will win.

But there’s a problem. Electability is not an objective quality. Without much argument, we can sort candidates into bins like male and female, white and non-white, gay and straight, young and old, and perhaps even progressive and moderate. But who is electable and who isn’t?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once compared investing in the stock market to gambling on a beauty pageant: You win not by betting on the most beautiful contestant, but by identifying the one that other people will find beautiful. That’s what we’re trying to do when we search for an electable candidate. It’s not enough to find the one who would be the best president by your own lights; you need to pick out the one that other people will vote for. The New Republic’s Alex Pareene doubts that anyone can do that:

While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for.

WaPo’s Dan Balz examines past failures to predict electability, starting with Donald Trump in 2016, and going back from there to Barack Obama in 2008, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. All started their campaigns by outcompeting candidates that the consensus said were more electable, and then proved their own electability by getting elected.

I confess to feeling conflicted about all this. I recognize what critics are saying, but I really, really want to beat Trump in 2020. So I want electability to mean something. But how should I look for it?

False notions of electability. Polls only help up to a point. Several polls have Joe Biden beating Trump by the widest margin, while one recent poll had Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ best bet. But do polls now tell us much about who the voters will support 18 months from now, after a long (and presumably dirty) campaign? Biden’s candidacy already seems a bit dull; by Election Day will marginal voters be too bored with him to show up? Beto is more exciting, but also less well known. I expect the Trump campaign to have limitless resources to devote to smearing his opponent. Will the mud more easily slide off of a candidate we already know well? Or does a long career just provide more targets?

I had similar qualms in 2016. Leading up to the primaries, polls consistently showed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump, but Sanders by a wider margin. (Hillary ultimately did beat Trump by 3%, which wasn’t quite enough to counter his Electoral College advantage.) But Republicans had been smearing Hillary for decades, and had not yet begun to go after Bernie. So I tried to imagine how they would in a pre-New-Hampshire-primary post. How durable, I wondered, would Sanders’ poll lead over Trump be once he had his own invented scandal, like Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary’s role (whatever it was supposed to have been) in Benghazi? (This time around, Republicans are already working to create a scandal for Biden.)

Another thing electable shouldn’t mean is white straight Christian male. A black man and a white woman have won the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. Nancy Pelosi was supposed to doom Democrats’ chance of taking the House in 2018, but she didn’t. Women like Amy Klobuchar have won Senate seats by wide margins in the kinds of states Democrats need to win in 2020 (Minnesota). Kirsten Gillibrand’s first seat in Congress came from a red district in upstate New York. Pete Buttigieg may be the first major gay contender, but I want to see what actual voters have to say before I eliminate him.

I’m also suspicious of ideological definitions of electability. The centrist version says that Trump has abandoned the educated suburban Republicans, whose votes might be available to a Democrat moderate enough not to scare them away. 2018 seemed to bear this out; the gains that allowed Democrats to retake the House came mostly in suburban districts that had formerly elected Republicans. But the long-term record of this idea is poor; Republicans have been constantly shifting to the right since Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and yet somehow the abandoned center never provides enough votes to sweep Democrats into uncontested power. Instead, Democrats’ refusal to defend their left flank has pushed ambitious liberal ideas out of the national conversation entirely, and (until recently) has caused the center to move steadily to the right at the Republicans’ pace.

So electable can’t just mean moderate. It also can’t just mean progressive. The left-wing theory of electability is that in a polarized country, elections depend on turnout, so the candidate who best excites the base is most electable. Since turnout tends to be lowest among the poor, non-whites, and young people, candidates who appeal to these groups — generally more progressive candidates — should do better than moderates.

As sensible as that may sound in theory, evidence of it actually working is pretty thin. I’m still waiting for the progressive version of Marco Rubio: In 2010, he ran as a Tea Partier, won the Republican primary against an establishment candidate, and then went on to capture a Senate seat in a purple state. Stacey Abrams almost pulled off an even more impressive feat last year in the Georgia governor’s race, but fell short (with some voting irregularities that may have made the difference). So far, successful progressive stars have come areas that Democrats would hold in any case, like Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren), and Queens (AOC). They’re winning blue districts by matching the people who already vote, not by stimulating new turnout that flips red districts.

Both sides try to claim Barack Obama as an example of their theory working, because Obama’s 2008 landslide did everything right: He inspired new turnout and he held the center. In the most impressive Democratic victory of recent years — Doug Jones winning a Senate race in Alabama — Jones won as a moderate alternative to the far-right Roy Moore, not as a progressive. But he got a big turnout from black voters anyway.

How the 2020 campaign shapes up. Trump won in 2016 with only 46% of the vote, and many his voters did not have a particularly high opinion of him. (In an exit poll, only 41% of Trump voters said they strongly favored Trump, while 50% cited dislike of his opponent as their motivation.) According to 538’s weighted average of approval polls, he had a brief honeymoon period shortly after the inauguration, when his approval was higher than his disapproval, but still not over 50%. (Obama’s approval during his honeymoon period was in the high 60s.) More recently, he’s been stuck in a narrow 39%-43% approval range. No jobs report can bring that number up; no gaffe or evidence of corruption can bring it down.

In short, it is inconceivable that Trump will be re-elected because a majority of voters actually like him or want him to continue as president. The number of people who say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020 has been running in the 55%-58% range.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t win; just that he only has one route to victory: Some chunk of the electorate — just enough to let Trump sneak through the door — needs to conclude that the Democrat is even worse. So Trump needs to sow dissension among Democrats, as he (and the Russians) did in 2016.

To a certain extent he’ll run by raising support: He’ll take credit for the economy (assuming that it’s still good) and for a few other (mostly fake) accomplishments like the denuclearization of North Korea. He’ll remind Evangelicals how he came through for them with judicial appointments. He’ll tell nativists about the invasion of Hispanics he’s prevented. He’ll wink and nod at white supremacists, while distancing himself from the terrorists he clearly inspires. He’ll claim to have helped farmers, even though he hasn’t. He’ll conjure up another fantasy about the fantastic healthcare plan he’ll reveal someday, the one that covers everybody and costs less and doesn’t require any new taxes.

But a lot of the positive hopes he inspired in 2016 aren’t credible any more. We all know he isn’t going to fill his administration with “the best people” or make “great deals” to end the trade deficit. He’s not going to make other countries respect America. His tax cut isn’t going to pay for itself and isn’t going to provide any serious relief to working people. His infrastructure plan is always going to be vapor. He isn’t going to settle down and become more presidential someday.

In short, that 39%-43% isn’t going to grow, because he’s really not even talking to anyone else. His famous “What have you got to lose?” message to black voters in 2016 is paradigmatic: It wasn’t delivered to blacks at all. He was speaking about blacks in Detroit, but to whites in a suburb of Lansing. The point of that speech was to convince his base that he has a message for blacks. That’s all.

Without growing his base, how will he get up to the 46%-or-so that he needs to let the Electoral College work its dark magic? He’ll need to smear the Democratic candidate enough that dissident Republicans will get behind him and marginal Democrats will decide not to vote. That’s the only path to victory, so that’s what he’ll do.

How do we cope with that? The #1 thing Democrats need to avoid is framing the 2020 primary campaign as a death struggle between rival factions, one of which will lose and probably still feel disaffected in November. If Bernie-ites see beating Biden as revenge on the establishment for his loss to Hillary in 2016, or if centrists who are still angry with Bernie for pushing his 2016 campaign long past the point of hopelessness pull out all the stops to deny Bernie again, then we’re in trouble. There’s going to be conflict in the primaries, but it needs to be a fight between siblings, not enemies.

Each campaign talks about “vetting” its rivals, but there’s a difference between raising difficult issues and laying the groundwork for a Trump smear. So, for example, it’s fine to question Sanders or Warren about how they plan to pass and pay for their ambitious plans, but it’s out of bounds to make them answer for “socialism” in Venezuela. It’s fine to point out that Klobuchar and Booker are not supporters of Medicare for All, and that each has benefited from pharmaceutical-industry contributions in past campaigns. But it’s out of bounds to declare, as if it were a proven fact, that either is “bought and paid for”. And so on.

Admittedly, my Facebook news feed is probably not the most representative window into American opinion. But there’s one pattern among progressives that has me worried: a tendency to inflate Bernie’s support (the one recent poll that had him ahead of Biden got an amazing amount of attention on my feed, and the other recent poll that had him far behind got dissed on bogus grounds) combined with a persecution narrative about all the dark forces that are working behind the scenes to ruin his chances. (MSNBC is supposedly in the tank for Biden because it’s owned by Comcast, even though I’ve seen no evidence that Comcast is either rooting for Biden or interfering with MSNBC’s editorial decisions.) It’s obvious how that could play out disastrously: If Bernie’s support turns out to be less than his supporters have convinced themselves it is, the conspiracy-theory explanation of that shortfall will be ready, and Trump will be ready to exploit it to divide his opposition.

I think that all candidates currently in the race deserve a presumption of good will. No matter now much I may disagree with some position one of them takes, I’m going to listen to their justification and consider the possibility that they really believe it. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that they must be either crazy or corrupt, as Trump is bound to claim.

Who is electable? When I judge electability, I’m not looking for a demographic profile or a particular set of policies. Instead, I’m looking for someone who will make a good spokesperson for Democratic values, who has the skills to perform well in a debate with Trump, who thinks well on his or her feet, and who demonstrates an ability to appeal to people of all races and classes and religions and genders. I’m looking for someone who can deliver an anti-Trump critique without sounding like the pot criticizing the kettle.

I’m looking for someone mud won’t stick to, who can deflect criticism with humor, and who can deliver a sting without sounding nasty. I want a candidate who can stand up to hostile questioning without getting flustered or testy or evasive. I want someone who can get specific on policy details, but never loses sight of the millions of Americans who aren’t political wonks.

Most of all, I’m looking for someone who uses the Light Side of the Political Force, someone who can raise enthusiasm without resorting to fear or anger. Fear and anger live on Trump’s home turf; going there plays into his hand, and will motivate his voters more than ours. But our candidate also can’t be dull. If none of the people who pay attention to politics this early can get excited about a candidate, how are we going to convince the apathetic to come out and vote?

As I hope you can tell, I haven’t determined yet who the most electable candidate is. I think establishing who does or doesn’t have these qualities is what this part of the campaign is for. At this point, I’m rooting for all 20+ of them. I hope one of them surprises me.

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Comments

  • Agents of Reason  On May 6, 2019 at 10:14 am

    As good an analysis and review of where we are/where we might go as I have read. Nice work, Doug, at a good time to lay this out.

  • Ed O  On May 6, 2019 at 2:08 pm

    Just a fact check: Hillary beat Trump by 2% (almost 3 million votes), not 3% (which would have been 4 million votes).

  • Michael D Flanagan  On May 6, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    Personally, I’m impressed with the entire Democratic field! I don’t see a dud amongst them. Yes, some are attracting more attention than others, but even the “also-rans” are each emphasizing an important part of the 21st Century, Democratic Platform.

  • Abby  On May 6, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    “Electable” cannot and should not mean “Like a Republican, only nicer.” Dems have made this mistake frequently, thinking that if they occupy what they see as the center, don’t scare off so-called moderate Republicans, but are nicer than scare-tactic Republicans, then they can sail to victory. This fails on two counts. First, if given a choice only between “Republican-lite” and a real Republican, most voters will choose a real Republican. Second, the main thing that distinguishes you from your Republican opponent is that you are nicer, then you have made their job of defeating you extremely easy. All they have to do is expose you as
    “not nice”. Republicans are past masters at smear tactics, and they will make sure that everybody knows that you are not nice at all, even if they have to invent two or three scandals just to “prove” it. Then they win.

  • ramseyman  On May 8, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Your admitted inability to reach a conclusion about electability is reinforcing what I’ve felt about this all along. I believe the word is meaningless at best and dishonestly manipulative at worst. It is used by most writers to try to convince voters to abandon personal opinions about the real issues in favor of hopping on whatever bandwagon the writer is seeking to create. Such a bandwagon is often the product of the media’s slanting its reporting and/or largely a self-fulfilling prophecy of all these people being convinced that it exists. If I could banish one word from our political landscape, it would be “electable”.

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