Pundits have long tried to put themselves in the shoes—actually the heads—of voters, attempting to understand what they’re thinking and why, as well as how they are likely to react to various circumstances. But with Democrats seemingly unified by just one thing—unseating President Trump—the fixation on electability is turning many Democratic voters into pundits, deciding who they will support based not on who is most experienced or qualified, or who shares their positions and values, but who might have the best chance of winning. Certainly not all Democrats are focusing exclusively on electability, but more are doing so than we have ever seen.
In August and September columns, I referenced a conversation with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who agreed that while electability was usually not a major factor in presidential-nomination contests, this time around it could loom large.
Yet different people interpret electability in different ways and draw different conclusions.
When two or more Democrats, or really two or more politically interested people of any stripe, discuss the Democratic nomination, far more often than not we will hear various candidates dismissed as being unable to win. Indeed, if you believe all of these pronouncements, you’d come away thinking that none of them can win.
Some are said to be too old. This is an accusation usually thrown at Joe Biden, though of the four septuagenarians running, two are older than the former vice president. Pete Buttigieg is seen by others as too young, while some discount him for being gay. Some doubt that an African-American like Cory Booker or Deval Patrick can win, even though Barack Obama did exactly that. Others, namely Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, are dismissed because they ostensibly can’t win sufficient African-American votes. Some still say Americans won’t elect a woman. Bloomberg is said to be unelectable because he is a billionaire businessman who once worked on Wall Street, which is anathema to the current Democratic Party. But then there are those who say Elizabeth Warren, the scourge of Wall Street, can’t win because she’s too liberal. Some aren’t well known enough, some might be too well known, too defined in a pejorative way. Andrew Yang can’t win because he has no governmental experience, but Biden can’t because he has been in government too long. You get the idea.
I am waiting to hear someone say that Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, Booker, Sanders, and Warren are all out of the running because they will be spending the better part of January—the month before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus—on the Senate floor in an impeachment trial. Why not? Every other exclusion has already been thrown around.
There seems to be little pattern as to which factors are perceived by which observers. Different people seem to fixate on different characteristics, seizing on one seemingly to the exclusion of any other, or unmindful that they are systematically ruling out a pretty large field of candidates.
While my view is that electability should be a consideration, it’s questionable whether it should be the dominant factor to the exclusion of anything else. We are seeing too many Democrats letting the perfect being the enemy of the good, as they continue to search for the elusive (and nonexistent) flawless candidate.
Some, or even most, of these characterizations may turn out to be actual disqualifiers, but for at least one of the candidates, it won’t be. One of these Democrats will win the nomination with a pretty decent shot of prevailing in the general election. You can argue over whether any Democratic nominee pitted against Trump has odds on the sunny side of 50-50 or a bit on the shady size.
But given the evenly and badly divided nature of this country—90 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing, fewer than 10 percent of Democrats approve, and independents are in the mid-to-high 30s—any of the current crop of candidates could win or lose a general election. Some will just have better chances than others.
But which ones?