The Things Everyone Should Know About Electability
“Electability” is the hottest word of the moment, on every Democrat’s mind for sure. Our sprawling, unwieldy, feisty, hyper-diverse party is united around one thing and one thing only: beating Donald Trump. As we should be, because this guy is a direct and total threat to our entire democracy.
But there are lots of myths about electability, and Democrats need to separate the myths from the facts to make a rational decision about who to support. Various candidates' strategies represent far more than one sensible school of thought about the best pathway to electability. Biden personifies the comfortable-as-an-old-shoe theory; Cory and Kamala's aim is to maximize the people of color vote; Bernie's focus is maximizing the youth vote and progressive energy (and minimizing the protest vote); Beto and Buttigieg are the fresh face/opposite of Trump candidates; Elizabeth Warren is running the "big ideas" campaign; and Inslee is prioritizing a bold transformation to a green economy. I’m not going to go over all those theories in detail because a lot of other people have done that and you probably already have a sense of what they are, but suffice to say they all have both some logic and some decent numerical analysis to back them up.
What I want to do instead is tell you some of the most important things you should know about the whole electability topic:
1. The conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. That conventional wisdom about who the most electable candidate was over the last several open cycles- Hillary in 2016, Hillary in 2008, Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000- has not tended to turn out well for us; and the conventional wisdom about who could never win- Trump in 2016, a black man with an African-Muslim name in 2008, Bill Clinton after his womanizing, draft dodging, and not inhaling problems in the 1992 primary- have generally proven to be false as well.
2. Most of the time, the early frontrunner in the polls loses. At this time in the election cycle, the following candidates were the overwhelming favorite in the polling: LBJ, in ’68, Muskie in ’72, Teddy Kennedy in ’76 and ’80, Mondale in ’84, Gary Hart in ’88, Mario Cuomo in ’92, Gore in 2000, Hillary in 2004, 2008, and 2016. Only 3 times in all those elections did the early frontrunner win, and 2 of those 3 times (Mondale and Hillary in 2016), they had a far tougher fight than expected. I will also note that most of the candidates who did beat those frontrunners were at about 1% about now in the national polls. Early polling matters less than anything I know of in presidential politics.
3. No one is doomed to lose the general election, and no one is sure to win. Democrats, especially this cycle, tend to get themselves 100% focused on the electability thing, and quickly convince themselves that their preferred candidate and path to victory is the only one that wins the general, and therefore other candidates have no chance. This is simply not borne out by any polling, historical measures, or other sensible analysis. Take a look a the Hillary election: she would have won PA, MI, and WI (and thus the presidency) if there was a higher level of African-American turnout; OR if she had won most of the Jill Stein voters; OR if she had gotten a higher percentage in small towns and rural areas; OR if more Bernie voters had turned out to vote; OR if a higher percentage of young women voters had turned out to vote. Hillary all by herself had several different paths to victory demographically, not to even mention message-wise.
Keep in mind as well that diametrically opposed kinds of Democratic candidates (older white male conservatives as opposed to young black progressives) in both Georgia and Florida last year won almost identical numbers of votes. One can make the case that at least in some regions, partisan voting patterns are so aligned that all the hullabaloo over exactly what kinds of candidates to pick is a little overblown.
The fact is that Democrats have several different ways we can in this race, and we are in fact capable of electing a candidate who is capable of winning in a lot of different states. In addition to those 3 Rust Belt states mentioned above, we are right on the cusp of winning NC, GA, FL, and AZ. Texas might even be in play depending on who the nominee turns out to be. If Sherrod Brown were on the ticket, maybe Ohio would come back into play. If Bernie is the nominee, maybe we lose some higher income older suburbanites who are scared of the word socialist, but we make that up with a big surge of young voters and/or people of color, combined with the Jill Stein voters who voted for Bernie.
At the same time, nothing is a sure thing. Even the supposedly safest candidates make mistakes, and those safe candidates may not turn out young folks or people of color (see Hillary Clinton).
Whoever our nominee is, we should go into this election assuming very little, neither over-confident nor despairing- because both can be fatal.
My advice to all of you Democrats who care about beating Trump is to ignore the conventional wisdom. Instead pick the candidate you think has the most compelling narrative and message, is the best at telling stories and building a strong positive identity that can withstand brutal attacks, is running most strongly on kitchen table issues, and who seems to be the most successful at getting the young people you know interested and excited. At the end of the day, these are the things that are going to matter the most in beating Trump.