The year was 2004. A middling approval GOP president was in the midst of a tough reelection and polls had captured Democrats being drawn to an upstart, former Governor from Vermont. Two debates later and Democrats had settled on the safer choice, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Kerry would go onto lose by three million votes to the last GOP President to carry the popular vote in presidential elections.
As anxious Democratic voters continue to debate over which candidate to support in their bid to oust President Trump, electability looms large. Few would debate for example Joe Biden has the electability track due to his strength in the Midwest and among swing voters, but the most electable candidate has a shoddy track record.
Think of just a few recent examples. In 1976, Republicans were torn between their hearts and minds over Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. They went with the safe choice and the result was Jimmy Carter’s first and only term.
Fast forward four years and Republicans had few qualms about Reagan. Okay, except former Republican turned Independent candidate. In 1992, Bill Clinton went out of his way to be the most electable candidate not just to his own party but also disaffected Reagan swing voters. And in 2000, George Bush occupied the most electable lane by conducting a hit job on John McCain in South Carolina.
But, for Democrats today, the urge to defeat Trump is something with no Republican has never united them on. As a result, many Democratic voters are left trying to guess who is the strongest candidate.
But it is not just the shoddy track record of the most electable candidate which gives pause. It is also electability is in the eyes of the beholder.
For example, in 2008, at the start of the primary campaign few would have thought Obama was more electable than a Clinton. But he turned out to be.
For Democratic candidates on the outside looking in, this argument is their calling card. Bernie Sanders readily admits there is no playbook for his revolution. But, his supporters say he has a plan and his agenda is easily sellable if promoted by the party.
The same theme is parodied by arguably the candidate being hurt the most by the issue, Elizabeth Warren. Warren has seen a surge in the polls but that support has largely come at the expense of Sanders and other fringe progressive candidates, suggesting she cannot break through with the electability voters Biden has a lock on.
A recent Atlantic piece chalks this up largely to sexism, and a vague Pew survey on gender in America, but there remain reasons to doubt Warren. Despite growing up poor she has existed in academia for decades. She has little street cred with Midwestern voters and she already has a black mark on her record for lying about her Native American heritage. I mean lack of one. She is fiery on the stump and “has a policy for that.”
The Warren camp would argue these attacks are unfair. They very well might be. But Warren has to fight through the perception she is not electable if she wants to get elected.
By contrast, Joe Biden, benefiting very much from the electability argument, often seems asleep while campaigning. He has made gaffe after gaffe on the campaign trail, which means more to the media than the average voter, and his staff has scaled back his campaign events even as the primary hits top gear.
Bidens camp does not deny they benefit from the electability argument. But, they have done little to bolster the feeling their candidate is up to the full rigors of a campaign. But, when compared to the ideologies of a full blown, self-identified socialist, and a progressive “capitalist” in Warren, he has gotten the benefit of the doubt.
The media, despite their hand wringing over his gaffes, have largely settled on his electability. Their pundits repeat the assertion over and over. Voters pay attention to the pundits and the polls, what they do not listen to nor predict is what their fellow American voters will do.
And let’s be honest. None of us can. But it is particularly hard when many Democratic voters reside in political deserts where all their friends agree with them on every issue. Figuring out what a swing voter in Wisconsin might want for an urban Californian is about as likely as rolling snake eyes twelve times in a row.
Not that this has stopped Democrats from trying. The default so far has been Biden, despite his break from progressive orthadoxy. But Biden has his warts. And can he really take on Trump?
Of course, whether Biden is the most electable remains debatable. But a plurality of Democratic primary voters continue to say the answer is yes. Will it until the end? Well, that is in the eye of the beholder.