As soon as Joe Biden declared his candidacy he was declared the front runner. And social media filled up with declarations that we all have to rally around Joe because he is “electable.” I suspect this is part of an attempt to create a bandwagon effect for good ol’ Joe, whom I like personally. But I sincerely hope he’s not the nominee.
Saying someone is a front-runner isn’t the same as saying they will win or even that they are currently the favorite. But the word means even less in 2020 than it does in your average presidential race. …
… The two leading candidates in most polls are Biden and Bernie Sanders. It’s no coincidence that they also happen to be the only two candidates pretty much everyone is at least somewhat familiar with. Gallup and Monmouth polling shows around 3 in 10 Democrats haven’t formed an opinion of Elizabeth Warren, about 4 in 10 don’t have one of Kamala Harris, and around half are similarly noncommittal or don’t know Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. Biden is popular among the Democrats who have an opinion of him — 72 percent favorable and 16 percent unfavorable in the Monmouth poll — but he’s not appreciably more popular among those who know him than a lot of these other candidates.
Somewhat more damning is this analysis by Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. He found that perceptions of “electability” tend to correspond to “straight white male.” But this is more interesting:
Some candidates widely seen as electable don’t have as much support from voters, while others who have generated a lot of voter enthusiasm aren’t seen as particularly strong general-election candidates.
What does that tell us? When we decide who is “electable” we’re guessing who other people will want to vote for. But what does it say when a voter really prefers candidate A but is cajoled into voting for candidate B because he or she is “more electable”? Based on what? And Rakich provides data showing that while a significant number of people polled think Joe Biden is “electable,” a smaller percentage say he’s their first choice.
And that’s how we end up with candidates many voters aren’t all that enthusiastic about. And we lose.
In dozens of conversations during Biden’s maiden Iowa voyage, some voters said they had been pining for a Biden candidacy. They believed in his experience, and his decency, and his work as vice president.
Just as many voters said that they had come to support Biden because he seemed best positioned to defeat President Trump — sometimes offering the names of candidates they considered more inspiring but less electable. And several voters struggled to explain why, if he did defeat Trump, Biden would be able to succeed in his agenda where the Obama-Biden administration struggled. …
… More than any other contender for the Democratic nomination, Biden’s candidacy is premised on how he can win. No other Democrat comes close. The latest Quinnipiac national poll, which put Biden at 38 percentsupport among all Democrats, found just 23 percent of them saying Biden had “the best policy ideas.” But 56 percent said that Biden had “the best chance of winning,” a sentiment shared by every Biden endorser.
And here’s the kicker.
The tautology of the “electability” theory, that Biden is electable because people say he’s electable, is a big reason why his entry did not scare off many rival campaigns.
Weigel then goes on to a brief history of “electable” Democratic candidates, people who the polls said were “electable” but who went ahead and lost.
I understand why long-time Democrats feel comfortable with Biden. He’s a likeable guy. You know he won’t be sitting on his toilet at three a.m. sending stupid tweets. You know he’s not going to do anything really off-the-wall, like start a trade war with Canada. He reminds us of a time when we had a president who didn’t make us cringe with embarassment. But in an election cycle when the energy and enthusiasm is coming from younger, left-leaning voters, is Biden really more electable than everyone else running? How do we really know who is electable until they, you know, win the election?
Every four years we have a discussion about electability, and every four years the consensus on electability is mistaken. A buffoonish, bigoted reality TV star without a day of political experience? Completely unelectable. A 40-something African American senator with an Arabic middle name? Absurdly unelectable.
You know who everyone agreed was electable, though? War heroes with long records as respected legislators. Like John McCain, John Kerry and Bob Dole. Also electable: moderates who know how to reach across the aisle, like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Al Gore.
I have this crazy idea that we should use the primaries to vote for the person we most want to be president. Waldman agrees:
Despite all the evidence that the single most important determinant of getting elected president may be whether a candidate can excite their own party’s voters, we never treat that as a factor in electability. We discuss the electorate as though it has a fixed number of voters, and there will be no one who either stays home because they’re uninspired or turns out when they otherwise wouldn’t have because a candidate excites them. If that’s your assumption, then naturally you conclude that all that matters is whether someone can pull votes from the other side.
Not only that, you’re actively discouraged from thinking that the person whom you really like might be electable. After all, if you’re a partisan, and you love a particular candidate, that must mean they won’t be able to appeal to those magical swing voters.
Let’s repeat that last part — you’re actively discouraged from thinking that the person whom you really like might be electable. So you tell your inner voice to shut up and dutifully vote for the candidate Everybody Says is the right one. Again, this is why Democrats lose, and why the party has been so damn unesponsive to ordinary constituents for so long.
Democratic voters did not teach themselves to prioritize electability over their own actual concerns. They were trained to, over many years, by party figures who over-interpreted the loss of George McGovern, or who wanted to use the fear of McGovern to maintain their power over the Democratic candidate pipeline and nomination process. “Electability” is a way to get voters to carry out a contrary agenda—not their own—while convincing them they’re being “responsible.”
Fight the programming! Don’t vote as you’re told! Listen to your own conscience!
And now Democratic candidates and their most loyal voters are stuck in an absurd feedback loop. The politicians campaign and govern as if they themselves don’t believe a majority of voters prefer their agenda, signaling to their most loyal voters that they must vote not for what they want, but for what they imagine their more-conservative neighbors might want. But when voters in 2016 did exactly that, and nominated the candidate they were repeatedly told was most qualified to defeat Trump in the general election, they chose a person who went on to lose to him.
And where is that programming coming from? Jill of Brilliant at Breakfast:
Every time I see the word “electable” used, I know that it’s code that means some candidate that isn’t going to rock the boat, but is palatable to the moneyed pundit class whose jobs can’t be outsourced and who rarely set foot outside the Washington cocktail weenie circuit.
What if — I know this is crazy, but pretend — we had something called a “primary election” in which we all voted for the person we really truly deep in our hearts wanted to be president, and lo, when the votes were counted our first choice actually won! And this same person won primaries in other states as well! Wouldn’t that person be “electable”? If not, why not?
And then, if we more often elected people we really wanted, maybe we’d have a better government. I know, it’s crazy.