The electability question

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.


  1. Myra Greenwood says

    I’m supporting Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State because he can beat Trump and I don’t have to compromise my principles in anyway when I vote for him for our next President of the USA!

  2. mnb0 says

    But what if there is no candidate I would prefer? For the last 20 years or so I can’t think of any USA presidential candidate I’d consider voting for.

  3. anat says

    Marcus, I think you can have a slightly higher age limit for women following differences in life expectancy.

  4. lorn says

    Trump won because he wasn’t lukewarm. He raises passions. He had no plans beyond platitudes and broad goals. He is singularly incapable and highly incompetent. But he looks the part of a comforting daddy figure and he isn’t lukewarm.

    Hillary was supposed to be a reasonable choice because she is white and politically experienced and competent and had a well thought out plan for every little thing. She had two page short answers and was about as exciting as oatmeal.

    Yes, she might have done this, that or the other thing differently. Some people say she isn’t trustworthy. Most of those people, including a whole lot of Democrats, have subtlety bought into the framing and smears so helpfully provided by the GOP supported cottage industry that grew up around the great work of cutting her Clintons off at he knees back in their Arkansan days. She certainly didn’t lose because of it. Dishonesty is a feature of and for Trump. He works it that way because he gets emotional buy-in based upon passion.

    I voted for Hillary and I like oatmeal. Passion is irrational, and it worries me because like love it can carry one along a path that leads to irrational things seeming reasonable. Perilous things seeming to be the only way. Watch Hitler speak. You don’t even need to know German. He captures their emotions and builds passion in waves. He seldom offers details, just broad strokes. Like Trump everything is superlatives. The audience is noble and just and patient and reasonable. The people he points out as the others are dirty and villainous. Nothing is neutral. It is the language of passion and reason can’t easily get a grip on it.

    I knew Trump could, despite reason and hope, win because I went to a Hillary rally. It was positive, even enthusiastic. But nothing like Trump’s rallies. He was creating true believers. Yes, many present were troglodytes but, before we write them off we need to understand that those knuckle-draggers vote. We need at least some of their votes.

  5. Dunc says

    We need at least some of their votes.

    No, you don’t. You just need enough other people’s votes. There isn’t a fixed-size pool of voters, who switch from one side to the other. There are mostly pools of voters for either side who either do or don’t show up, and an even larger pool of voters who never show up. Genuine flip-floppers are comparatively rare, despite the media’s obsession with them.

    So, the first thing you absolutely must do is to get your own voters to actually show up. (This is usually sufficient -- Clinton would have won had she turned out everyone who voted for Obama.) The second thing you would ideally like to do is appeal to non-voters.

    Trying to peel voters off the other side is a complete waste of time and effort, and the sort of political messaging necessary to do it makes it less likely that you’ll achieve either of the real goals. Forget about it. The only thing you should think about the other side’s voters is “how can we persuade them not to bother?”, and even that is arguable.

  6. lanir says

    The proper response to proponents of electability is to agree we should implement ranked choice voting as soon as possible, as widely as possible.

    @lorn: I’m not sure if it was your intent but you’ve neatly summarized the slippery slope problems with chasing after electability. Once you give up on getting what you want, you find yourself chasing after increasingly ridiculous fringe groups in a hopeless attempt to build a consensus on your own. You’re empowering a lunatic fringe minority and they have no reason to even listen to you much less give you what you want: you’re giving them more than they could ask for and they don’t even have to give up anything to get it. To put it another way, does anyone really think Trump got elected by a previously unknown majority of pussy-grabbers?

  7. lorn says

    The point I was going for was that that there is another dimension to political campaigns: the ability to express passion and to connect with people on this level. That there are people who are relatively (completely?) insensitive to policy, and the various negative traits so fully on display with Trump. People who get drawn up into the passion and the ability of a politician to seem/feel right on a purely emotional level.

    To get their vote you don’t need to compromise your progressive agenda, no matter how extreme or revolutionary it might be. This is no a call for shortening the sails and settling for half a loaf. You don’t need to give up a thing. These people are not interested in policy. What you do need to do is change the way you connect with them.

    Depending on your candidate’s skills and abilities in performance art and rhetorical timing, this may simply be a tuneup or re-framing. Hillary was not gifted in this area. I suspect that, given her intellect and willingness to work, she could have done well enough if the need to register more fully on an emotional level had been identified, made clear, and suitable coaching could be obtained. We shall never know. Some candidates simply lack the gift.

    We need a candidate that can and will connect emotionally. One that can unleash the power of anger and rage, and resentment. Liberals have a lot to be mad about. First, despite all the hate directed at us and the lies and smears and ridicule we have been right about damn near everything. Second, people, poor people more than others but essentially everyone, even the very rich, are needlessly and uselessly suffering. People are literally dying to flatter and enrich a very few people who are always going to be sad because they know they have stolen all they have and fully understand that stolen wealth can be taken back.

    This socioeconomic structure, is by default painful and degrading and overly complicated. It is toxic to humanity and corrosive to human creativity and enjoyment. It is also completely human created. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change it. I don’t know what it should look like but there are clues. Most western nations have healthcare and while none are perfect all seem better than the mess we have here now. We used to have the finest educational system. Now kids get taught how humans rode dinosaurs to work or have schoolhouses where the toilets don’t flush. We used to have the best highways and roads on the planet. Now we steer around the potholes and the bridges are falling down. And on and on.

    I don’t want to put all the blame on one man, Reagan was as much a symptom of the right-wing tendencies as the instigator but it all became much more obvious under Reagan. And yes, he was also one who could connect emotionally and get a nation to slit its own throat while smiling:

  8. Myra Greenwood says

    You are so right. I used to canvas for the Dems as a paid canvasser and we never went to Repugs houses.

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