Every four years, the party out of the White House grapples with the question of who they want to serve as their standard bearer. And, like clockwork, the first thing they think about is what went wrong in the previous campaign. Last time, the thinking goes, we put up a candidate who was too/not enough (FILL IN THE BLANK) who didn't do enough/did too much (FILL IN THE BLANK) and ran a campaign that was too much/too little (FILL IN THE BLANK). The winning nominee, however, is almost always the candidate who fits the mood and the moment of the current time — not one that wants to re-litigate the outcome of the last one. In early 2008, the talk among Democrats was which candidate was the strongest to win Ohio — the state that Democratic nominee John Kerry narrowly lost four years earlier. On paper, the safest bet was Hillary Clinton. But, the party nominated Barack Obama, who not only carried Ohio but also expand the Electoral College map into states that Democrats had never won in the modern era — like North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia — or states that they hadn't won since the 1990s like Colorado and Nevada.
In 2016, the official RNC 'autopsy' concluded that their party would continue losing national presidential campaigns unless and until they expanded their appeal to voters of color and younger voters. That meant nominating someone who was open to immigration reform and didn't rely solely on the votes of older, white voters. But, that's not what many GOP primary voters concluded. John McCain and Mitt Romney were mainstream and business-friendly Republicans with a supposed appeal to moderates. They lost. So, why are Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, two candidates with similar profiles to McCain and Romney, seen as the 'most electable' in the race?
Trump was the right candidate at the right time. He didn't need to convince voters of his electability as much as Bush and other mainstream Republicans had to convince frustrated GOP voters that they should be more concerned about electability.
This year, many Democrats are using 2016 as the lens through which they view the 2020 campaign. Unlike the RNC, the DNC did not put out its own autopsy of the 2016 election. Instead, Democrats have lots of theories to explain Clinton's loss. Many blame James Comey. Others pin it on the Russians. There's also the "she should have gone to Wisconsin" excuse. Or, that Clinton lost because voters are more sexist in reality than they admit to pollsters.
But, while Democrats may not agree on exactly why Clinton lost — there is a pretty strong consensus that Joe Biden would have won. "Scranton-Joe" would have won Pennsylvania — they cry! Biden may not have been a perfect candidate, they argue, but he wouldn't have lost the Rust Belt. That argument is also made by supporters of Sanders who say that his populist message would have resonated with those same Rust Belt voters. And, just a few weeks ago, the campaign released internal polling memos showing the Vermont Senator leading Trump by significant margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
This isn't to say that Democratic voters are dismissing the other candidates — or that they are biased against women or candidates of color. Instead, they are simply reacting to what they know and what they've seen. They know (or think they know) what happened in 2016. They know (or think they know) Sanders and Biden. They don't know much about anyone else.
In April, the Washington Post/ABC News poll asked Democrats who they'd vote for in a primary or caucus in their state. Notably, the poll didn't read a list of names for people to choose from. Instead, it asked voters to volunteer a name. Almost half of the Democratic respondents (47 percent), didn't have an opinion.
According to the April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only Biden and Sanders were universally known among Democrats. Warren was the third-most recognized (10 percent of Democrats said they couldn't rate her), while Klobuchar was the least known (half of Democrats said they didn't know enough about her). Pete Buttigieg, the current media sensation, was recognized enough to rate by just 57 percent of Democrats — 43 percent said they didn't know enough about him to grade him.
Early polling also suggests that while Bernie Sanders is about as well-liked among Democrats as Biden, he's also viewed a bit more skeptically. The April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked Democrats to rate 2020 candidates by whether they were 'enthusiastic' or had 'reservations' about them. Given that Biden and Sanders are equally known, then, it's easier to make a direct apples-to-apples comparison. For example, while both get similarly high levels of support from Democrats — 70 percent said they were enthusiastic/comfortable with Biden, compared with 62 percent who said the same about Sanders, Biden is much more popular among women (73 percent enthusiastic/comfortable to 56 percent for Sanders), white voters (68 percent to 56 percent) and those over 50 (80 percent comfortable for Biden to just 55 percent for Sanders). Sanders is a bit more popular with younger voters (69 percent Sanders to 61 percent Biden), and non-white voters are evenly divided (74 percent Biden to 72 percent Sanders).
But, while a little over a quarter of Democrats (27 percent) say they have 'reservations' or are 'uncomfortable' with a Biden candidacy, 36 percent feel that way about Sanders.
I know I just walked through a bunch of poll numbers, but that's not what Democratic voters are doing right now. While political pros and cable TV talkers are debating the 'electability' game, they are mostly making it more than it really is. The debate over 'electability' at this stage of the game is still based on what happened in the last one. A lot of Democrats look at Biden and think he would've won in 2016 and as such see him as the safest choice for 2020. If however, Biden starts to look like a risky bet (he stumbles in a debate, bumbles on the trail, etc) the rationale on which is campaign is based collapses. The winner of the 2020 primary will be the candidate who can prove he/she is best suited for the unique challenges of the upcoming campaign, not the one who is still fighting over what they should do the same/differently from 2016.