/Welcome to the Electability Primary

Welcome to the Electability Primary


Democratic candidates in Los Angeles debate.
Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There were a lot of interesting things about the sixth Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles, including a reduced field and greater discussion of issues like climate change that had gotten little attention in earlier debates. But Osita Nwanevu really put his finger on the big picture of the gradual transformation of candidate competition at this stage of the race:

At year’s end, about a month and a half away from the Iowa caucuses, the ideas primary is over. The rough outlines of the candidates’ ideological positions within the party having been established to voters, the discourse has moved on to other matters. 

Those “other matters” mostly involve, one way or another, arguments from the candidates about why each is the best equipped to beat Donald Trump. Even when they are criticizing each other, you get the sense they are previewing general-election attack lines they expect Team Trump to use. And in moving in this direction, supply is most definitely reflecting demand: Democratic primary voters are focused on electability to an unusual, perhaps unprecedented degree.

As Perry Bacon Jr. noted last month, definitions and measurements of electability vary significantly, so discussions of the subject are often unproductively confusing. It’s interesting, though, to examine the arguments for electability the candidates themselves are explicitly and implicitly making. Here’s my overview of some of the campaigns and their claims:

It’s often observed that Biden’s candidacy is restorationist: He wants to bring back the political system as it existed before Donald Trump entered the White House and ruined everything. The positive element of this pitch is to remind Democrats of everything they loved about Barack Obama; but the central, negative message is that Biden will subordinate everything to the task of removing the cancer that is consuming the body politic.

In support of the idea that he’s the guy for that task, Biden has several credentials: very high name ID and perceived likability; the reputation for moderation that many identify with electability; a presumed appeal to the white working-class voters in the Rust Belt who defected from Biden’s friend Obama to Trump in 2016; demonstrated popularity among the minority voters whose poor turnout also helped do in Hillary Clinton; and the sense that he is a known quantity relatively invulnerable to any vetting surprises.

The cost Biden exacts for this résumé is (to reverse the old Nietzschean maxim about second marriages) is the sacrifice of hope for experience. Perhaps progressives are more excited by the policy offerings of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but they don’t amount to a hill of beans if Trump is reelected. Uncle Joe implicitly represents an interregnum before the new progressive era many Democrats crave. In this, actually, his advanced age is an asset. Maybe after he deposes Trump and issues some executive orders, he’ll get out of the way (by 2024, at least) and turn the party over to younger, more exciting politicians. That’s why if Biden gets into trouble in the early primaries, he should probably announce an early veep pick to reinforce the impression he is a transitional figure and knows it.

Biden’s heavy reliance on his electability credentials does, however, make him vulnerable to adverse polling data contradicting that reputation.

Sanders represents the long, long tradition of left-progressive (and for that matter, right-reactionary) conviction that base mobilization is a more effective way to win elections than swing-voter persuasion; that nonvoters are more “populist” than habitual voters; and that all sorts of actual and potential voters are left cold by Establishment centrists with their corporate associations. The idea that he represents a movement (or, as he likes to call it, a “political revolution”) and not just a candidacy also buttresses his claim that, if elected, he can accomplish more (like the extremely implausible enactment of Medicare for All overnight) than mere politicians. His carefully cultivated independence from the Democratic Party and his exceptional popularity among younger voters add to the idea that he can expand the party coalition without relying on the upscale suburban college graduates his centrist rivals often pursue so lustfully.

Bernie’s electability argument isn’t all a matter of unconventional move-left-to-win theories, however. He has always emphasized policy proposals that are demonstrably popular, and in 2020, as in 2016, he does relatively well in general-election trial polls against Trump. His biggest problems in convincing primary voters of his electability are twofold: (1) the strong attachment of the punditocracy to the theory that moderates are more electable, and (2) the fear that his long career in lefty politics will be a treasure trove for opposition researchers while playing into Trump/GOP plans to make 2020 a referendum on socialism.

Warren is typically the candidate who is better liked for her policy positions than for any perception of electability. But she needs an electability argument of her own for defensive purposes, if nothing else. Aside from perpetually batting down criticisms from those who think she’s not electable because she’s a woman, or an older “schoolmarmish” woman, or a Harvard professor, or a Massachusetts elitist, or “too liberal,” her chief positive claim is that she is a fearless fighter for working people who can go toe-to-toe with Trump. Her brains, her policy fluency, and her long record of taking on powerful interests all contribute to an image consistent with a quality I have recommended as a 2020 credential: unbreakability.

This quality of hers is useful in distinguishing the kind of campaign she would run against Trump from that of Hillary Clinton, the other older “schoolmarmish” elitist woman who didn’t do so well. Warren does not seem likely to let herself get swallowed up in the sort of poll-driven, calculating campaign Clinton ultimately embraced — to the expense of her principles, her critics often thought. Overconfidence also doesn’t seem to be in her makeup; she’s likely to be just as combative toward the wealthy interests she opposes whether she’s ten points up or ten points down. What you see is what you get, and there’s an appealing consistency in her steadiness.

Still, Warren doesn’t resemble past presidential winners very much, and will in particular have to shake sexist fears (or fear of sexists, depending on how you look at it) that she is a particular “type” of woman that voters just don’t like.

The more you listen to Pete Buttigieg, the more you hear a whole assortment of electability arguments you have heard from other candidates over the years. He’s young, and thus represents a new generation of leaders at a time when voters are sick of the status quo. He’s a veteran and an observant Christian, qualities Democrats don’t often have and that they are often perceived as disrespecting. He’s Not From Washington, always a popular outsider credential and particularly useful in a field with five senators and a former senator and veep. He shares a midwestern background (and the presumed connection with key battleground-state voters) with Amy Klobuchar. And he shares with both Klobuchar and Biden the claim that being relatively moderate — or at least aggressively nonsocialistic — improves electability. Indeed, Mayor Pete has been more outspoken on that point than anyone since John Delaney was on a debate stage.

Buttigieg needs all of these electability arguments to counteract some big doubts about his general-election strength, based on his slim résumé, his openly gay identity, and his manifest lack of appeal (so far) to the minority voters Democrats need to turn out strongly. So he presents a sort of electability puzzle for media and voters alike.

At the Los Angeles debate and in other public appearances, the senior senator from Minnesota rarely misses the opportunity to tout her familiarity with the values and interests of midwestern swing voters, and her strong electoral record back home in a state that is being targeted by Team Trump in 2020. To some extent, that’s because she desperately needs to do well in Iowa, where her status as a next-door neighbor is integral to her appeal. But the claim that she has a natural advantage in the Midwest is part of her national messaging, too, on grounds that someone who has repeatedly won big in Minnesota ought to be able to win Wisconsin — increasingly perceived as the key to the entire presidential election — next year.

She has also beat the drum of “pragmatic progressivism” more consistently than anyone in the field, not just in terms of eschewing big and controversial policy proposals, but in her incrementalist agenda, based heavily on what she can accomplish by executive order. And in contrasting herself both to Democrat Buttigieg (with whom she is ever-more aggressively competing) and to Trump, the veteran senator (she’s in her third term) isn’t afraid to brag on her Washington experience and connections.

Billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg shouldn’t be conflated; they have very different backgrounds (Bloomberg is a veteran elected official, Steyer an activist), campaign strategies (Steyer is focused on the early states, Bloomberg on the Super Tuesday), perceived ideologies (Steyer leans solidly left while Bloomberg is a centrist with certain progressive-policy priorities like gun safety and climate change), and even levels of wealth (Bloomberg could buy and sell Steyer many times over). But they both represent the desire of some Democrats to fight fire with fire on the financial front in 2020, and also appeal to some of the same people Biden does, who care about nothing other than beating Trump.

The big question about both of these candidates is less about electability than nominatabilty, but if other candidates conduct a demolition derby or the party goes into some sort of late electability panic, you could see some Democrats wanting to turn to a potential nominee who won’t have to waste time raising money and can match Trump’s business success dollar for dollar (or more).

The closer we get to the actual November 2020 election, the more all these varying electability arguments will begin to give way to more objective measurements like polls (already part of the argument, but not very reliable at this early date). And if we roll into the key moments of the nominating contest with Trump showing real strength, then you can be sure every surviving candidate will want to convince primary voters they can bring him down and end the nightmare. It will become the urgent Democratic priority if victory becomes or remains in doubt, and the electability primary could well be the one to win.

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