Bob Moser examines the question that always plagues the Democratic party, whether to go with the candidate who most appeals to you because they agree with your values or to go with the person who is considered the most ‘electable’. This is undoubtedly going to be the issue that Joe Biden will push hard if he chooses to run, since his legislative and policy record is pretty troublesome.
On the surface, this makes a sliver of sense. It is imperative that Trump and Trumpism be fumigated from our political system before the cockroaches are all that’s left. Looking for the safest bet to win a general election sounds like solid, pragmatic thinking. Until you take a look at the track record of “electable” presidential nominees — including Hillary Clinton in 2016, of course, whom George Will so aptly called “the only biped in the country who could have lost an election to Donald J. Trump.” In 1984, Democrats chose deficit hawk Walter Mondale over “risky” Gary Hart; in 1988, it was “practical” Michael Dukakis over Jesse Jackson; in 2000, Al Gore was the overwhelming choice for those who prized winning over all else.
Moser goes through the list of all the recent Democratic nominees who were chosen because they were considered electable and then lost. Moser concludes:
What does this tell us? That the whole concept of electability is a sham. A ruse. Pure nonsense. Pick your term. But it’s bullshit with a serious political purpose, as Matt Taibbi has pointed out: “The role of ‘electability’ has always been to convince voters to pick someone other than the candidate they prefer. The metric pundits usually employ is, ‘Which Democrat could most easily pass for a Republican?’ and vice-versa.”
If that were actually a formula for winning elections, it might make sense that Democrats obsess like crazy over identifying the “most electable” choice for 2020. But the opposite is true: When parties tap the candidates who engage and enthuse them the most, both in terms of style and substance, they elect presidents. When they pay heed to the nattering nabobs of electability, and go with perceptions of “who’s most likely to win,” they lose.
The problem with the idea of electability is how do you decide who is electable and who is not? Very often it is the pundits in the media who put these labels on candidates but they tend to favor candidates who will not upset the status quo in which the have found their niches. They may quote opinion polls but there is often a closed feedback loop at work there. Pundits declare who is electable and when polls ask people whom they think is electable, they may well use the pundits’ opinion because what else have they to go on?
My feeling is that it is better to look at what policies most people say they favor. The candidate who then aligns most strongly with those policies is the electable one. I was interested in an NPR interview this morning with Bernie Sanders. The interviewer, following the standard media narrative, asked him about his advocacy of policies that have now become “part of the mainstream conversation on the left”, suggesting that they were fringe views. Sanders immediately corrected her and said that they were not on the left but almost all those polices were favored by majorities, some overwhelmingly so, especially when it came to people who self-identified as Democrats. He is exactly right. What he is advocating are mainstream views, not extreme ones.
This does not mean that non-policy factors do not play a role. They do. People might like a candidate’s looks or way of speaking or personal history and those will factor into their choices. But those kinds of subjective reactions are hard to quantify so the policy platforms provide the most objective basis for deciding electability.
As I keep saying, the Democrats need to fire up the 100 million or so voters who did not vote last time. Picking some person the pundits label as ‘moderate’ (which is really code for a Republican without the overt manifestations of racism, homophobia, and misogyny), as they have so often done before and lost, is hardly likely to do the job.