The complicated choice facing Democratic presidential primary voters, desperate to pick the right candidate to beat President Donald Trump in 2020, was encapsulated this past weekend. Elizabeth Warren, who on Saturday delivered populist fire in her formal announcement speech, represented the view that fierce ideological conviction can carry the day in the general election. The next day, Amy Klobuchar touted her Midwestern roots as she personified the belief that a candidate from the middle—both politically and geographically—would be the most electable nominee.
And both candidates had their rollouts somewhat clouded by scandalous accusations—Warren’s past identification as an “American Indian” and allegations that Klobuchar is an abusive boss—that raised questions about their “electability.”
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Democrats say they care more about winning in 2020 than anything else. In a Monmouth University poll, when asked to choose between “a Democrat you agree with on most issues but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump,” or “a Democrat you do not agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump,” Democrats threw their policy preferences under the bus by 56 percent to 33 percent. And when Democrats were asked, in a CNN poll, which of seven candidate attributes are “extremely important,” they ranked “has a good chance of beating Donald Trump” the highest, at 49 percent. Ranked second-to-last with 25 percent was “holds progressive positions on the issues.”
These are disturbing numbers to some on the left. A growing chorus of voices has argued that electability is a nonsensical ruse concocted to box out true progressives in favor of timid moderates. “It’s alchemy and a crock,” scoffed Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, noting that nominating Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders didn’t save us from Trump, and picking John Kerry over Howard Dean didn’t stop George W. Bush’s reelection. New York’s Eric Levitz further suggested that Trump’s unpopularity makes the electability metric, however slippery, irrelevant for 2020: “In all probability, it will take only a minimally politically competent Democrat to get him out.” The Week’s Joel Mathis recently counseled primary voters, “Don’t ask yourself which candidate is electable. Ask which candidate you want to elect, then act accordingly.”
However, just because electability is not like pornography—you can’t always know it when you see it—doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Attempts to paint Barack Obama as too far left and Ronald Reagan as too far right didn’t work, but a candidate beloved by a party’s base can still flop in the fall. Cautionary tales abound, from presidential flameouts like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, to more recent congressional clunkers like Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Christine “I’m not a Witch” O’Donnell—all cases in which primary voters passed on candidates with fewer red flags.
Yet a candidate can also perform badly on some electability tests and still become president. In 1992, Bill Clinton never fully put to rest questions about his honesty and character, but that mattered less than the economy. In 2016, Trump shouldered scandal after scandal, and was hardly a maestro at defusing criticism of his issue positions. But voters in the primaries of 1992 and 2016 could reasonably conclude that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump each had a distinctive ability to attract voters who were not normally part of their respective parties’ bases. And each man proved he could win in the fall by surviving scandalous blows in the primaries that would have destroyed ordinary politicians.
More important, each ran in the fall against opponents with electability problems of their own. Sometimes, it’s not the most electable who wins, but the least unelectable. But that’s not an argument for willfully flying blind and ignoring electability altogether.
Primary voters will never be able to divine electability with clinical precision. But when the ultimate goal is winning 270 Electoral College votes, simply choosing a nominee based strictly on who you like is an enormous risk. A majority coalition invariably includes voters who don’t think exactly the way you do.
Asking average voters to discern what other voters like in a candidate is a tall order. Plenty of people who make their living by analyzing politics attempt to do just that and still get it wrong (*cough cough*). But when the people wrested the power to pick presidential nominees out of the hands of party bosses, they assumed the responsibility of nominating candidates with the best chance of winning. This is not the year to give up on trying to figure out who that is.
Voters shouldn’t completely suppress their issue priorities, or pretend to know exactly which candidates swing voters would prefer. But Democrats should press the 2020 candidates to explain what they believe makes them electable and to back up their case with evidence. If primary voters want to nominate the candidate who best balances their desires for both electoral and policy success, they shouldn’t reject the concept of electability. Instead, they should get better at identifying it. Here’s how.
Electability Test No. 1: The Voter Turnout Test
Part of the challenge is that there are no agreed-upon criteria for how Democrats can win elections. When George McGovern lost by a landslide in 1972, Democrats were quick to conclude the party had drifted too far left, and tacked toward the middle with Jimmy Carter four years later. But after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, a debate still rages over whether she was too milquetoast moderate and too close to corporations, whether she overly emphasized social and cultural issues like gun control and transgender rights, whether she forgot to woo working-class white voters, or whether she failed to boost turnout among the young and people of color.
Primary voters can’t be expected to adjudicate which strategy is correct—as there is no one correct answer that applies for every election. But they can demand that the candidates offer some hard evidence that they are capable of executing whatever they say is the best strategy.
So if candidates promise, Bernie-style, that they can win not by persuading right-leaning swing voters but by maximizing turnout among left-leaning unlikely voters and flipping back working-class Obama-Trump voters, demand proof. Where do those voters live? Are the candidates already organizing them in significant numbers? Do they have former Trump voters who have publicly pledged support? Have they persuaded independents to register as Democrats in states with closed primaries? If so, show us.
Part of what hurt Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary was that once voting began, his own logic collapsed on him. If he was the candidate who could spark revolution via overwhelming grassroots turnout, why was he strongest in low-turnout caucuses? Why did he lose most of the primaries, regardless of whether or not they were open to independents? And why was the overall Democratic primary turnout lower in 2016 than in 2008? Any candidate trying to make similar claims today will need more proof than large crowd sizes at campaign rallies, a deceptive barometer of support that Sanders had in spades.
The job for candidates who promise to deliver a more conventional swing voter strategy isn’t any easier. They may say they know how to peel off Midwestern white working-class voters, or affluent suburbanites in the Southwest and New South, from the GOP. But don’t let them get away with blithely asserting they have the right profile to win. Show us. Are you getting Republicans to switch their registrations? Do you have the support not just of union leaders, but of union members who often part ways with their leadership?
Candidates who have won in swing states and red states—such as Klobuchar, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana—may appear to have a natural edge. But we know that past success does not always augur future results. Al Gore could not win his home state of Tennessee, and Mitt Romney could not win his of Massachusetts, because they recalibrated ideologically in order to compete at the national level.
So merely saying, “I’ve won here before” doesn’t cut it. Why did you win there before? Was it because your campaign approach at home, in either style or substance, was distinct from typical Democratic campaigns? If so, are you prepared to stick to that approach, even it means offending progressives?
A big complicating factor here is the potential for a vote-splitting third-party candidate. A centrist independent like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz could prevent Democrats from building a majority anti-Trump coalition, posing a risk for Democrats if they to nominate somebody too far to the left. But, as Democrats know all too well, a more moderate Democratic nominee may fail to hold down the left flank, sending some voters to a left-wing third-party candidate (hi, Jill Stein!).
Candidates of all stripes need to prove not only that they can they attract new voters, but also that they’re not going to lose old ones. So while candidates may be inclined to survive the crowded field by winning an ideological “lane”—and consolidating support among a faction such as young populists or older pragmatists—if they pursue that strategy too divisively, they could spark an “Anybody But” movement within the rank-and-file. That would raise questions about another electability risk: their capacity to unify the party after the primary.
Electability Test No. 2: The Issue Defense Test
Progressives regularly justify adopting “bold” policy positions, and eschewing “incrementalism,” on the grounds that their wish list—including single-payer health insurance, sharp tax increases on the wealthy and free college—polls well. But counterarguments can drive poll numbers down. Any presidential candidate can take a position. Who is best at defending that position?
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had moments in 2016 that showed the weaknesses in their ability to sell their ideas. Sanders had his infamous New York Daily News interview, in which he gave flippant answers to questions about the logistics for breaking up big banks. But as the eventual nominee, Clinton’s energy policy gaffe was ultimately more damaging.
Her poorly constructed observation in a CNN town hall that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” completely obscured her previous sentence: “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country.” From that point forward, Clinton was never be able to convince coal country she had a plan with its best interests at heart.
In the 2020 primary, Kamala Harris had the first blunder when trying to defend a “bold” policy position. Asked during her CNN town hall if her version of “Medicare for all” would “totally eliminate private insurance,” she listed many of the frustrations associated with private insurance, then glibly concluded, “Let’s eliminate all of that.” This raised alarms about whether she wanted to eliminate private insurance, part of the concept of single-payer, which by definition doesn’t allow private insurers to compete with government plans.
Several Democratic presidential candidates then insisted their vision of “Medicare for all” would retain some private insurance, and the Harris campaign rushed to remind that she continues to support “public option” proposals that would not abolish private insurance. Clearly, she wasn’t initially prepared for critical questions, otherwise she would have given a more comprehensive answer that anticipated the inevitable counterarguments. Instead, she muddied her own position and inadvertently weakened the argument for single-payer.
One bobble, especially one so early in the primary season, does not condemn an entire presidential campaign. But these are the sorts of errors that rightly raise questions about a candidate’s ability to lead the charge for a progressive policy platform.
The quick embrace by several candidates of this week’s ambitious yet lightly sketched “Green New Deal” resolution will pose a fresh test of their persuasion skills. The far-reaching proposal from Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez envisions a “10-year mobilization” to meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” while also “guaranteeing” every American a “a job with a family-sustaining wage,” and “providing all people” with “high-quality health care, “affordable, safe, and adequate housing” and “economic security.” With so many details unwritten, there are lots of questions to be asked, and therefore, lots of potential traps.
Electability Test No. 3: The Scandal Test
When video surfaced in 2008 of Barack Obama’s pastor shouting “God Damn America,” Obama salvaged his campaign with a speech for the ages about race in America. When in 2015, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was rocked before it formally began with revelations about the private email server she used while secretary of state, she gave a news conference that produced more questions than answers, and the matter literally dogged her from beginning to end of the campaign. One became president, and the other didn’t.
Many Democrats believe that molehills are often unfairly turned into mountains by disingenuous Republicans, aided by a conflict-driven and content-hungry news media. But you don’t get elected president by whining about unfair attacks. You get elected by beating them back.
And it can be ultimately helpful for candidates, and for choosy primary voters, to be put through the wringer early. A candidate who skates into the nomination, like Kerry in 2004, presents an enormous risk.
Kerry stayed out of the spotlight for much of 2003 while Dean became the darling of the left. But as Dean began to falter before Iowa, especially after Saddam Hussein was captured and Democrats had second thoughts about Dean’s anti-Iraq War stance, Kerry and his “Band of Brothers” were emphasizing his record of military service in Vietnam. As the New Yorker explained in February 2004, shortly after Iowa: “Democrats say that what they are seeking above all this year is a candidate who can beat Bush, and while Dean, campaigning as an antiwar, anti-establishment, outsider maverick, tapped the leaderless party’s hot anger, the stolid war hero Kerry, with twenty years of experience in the foreign and domestic policy debates of the Senate, better fit the cold calculus of electability.”
But that calculus left out of the equation the seething anger toward Kerry from conservatives who for decades loathed his anti-Vietnam War activism. That bitterness fueled the wildly dishonest yet politically damaging Swift Boat Veterans for Truth effort to discredit Kerry’s war record. Kerry wrapped up the nomination so fast, primary voters never got the chance to see how he might respond to such smears. Instead, they found out too late.
In all likelihood, the 2020 primary will be a protracted affair, giving ample opportunity for top-tier candidates to be thoroughly scrutinized. Controversies, of varying severity, are inevitable. Primary voters should watch carefully to determine who has the skills to nip accusations in the bud, and who can’t seem to put them to rest.
Warren is currently faring the worst on this front. She apologized last week for “furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship” after the Washington Post uncovered a State Bar of Texas registration card from 1986 in which she classified herself as “American Indian.” This followed the backlash she suffered last year from some Native Americans for using a DNA test to buttress her claim to Cherokee and Delaware tribal heritage. Maybe the latest apology is the end of the matter. But if it isn’t, primary voters should worry about whether Warren’s electability is compromised.
What Warren is going through, and what other candidates may go through in the near future, might not be fair. But the Electoral College doesn’t have a fairness rule.