Presidential “Electability” and its Gatekeepers

During the 2004 Democratic primaries, The New Yorker ran an article about the two Democratic frontrunners, John Kerry and Howard Dean. In the article, they write that Democratic voters were “seeking above all this year a candidate who can beat Bush” [1]. Dean represented the anti-war, anti-establishment outsider who tapped into voters’ frustrations, while Kerry, with twenty years of experience in the foreign and domestic policy better fit the “cold calculus of electability.” Ultimately, Kerry’s impressive resume secured him the nomination, but he lost. 

In January 2016, when only Clinton and Sanders were left fighting for the Democratic nomination, the Clinton campaign argued that while Bernie Sanders is nice, only Hillary Clinton can actually win a general election [2]. Clinton’s campaign sought to meet Republicans halfway and maintain moderate, accessible policies that would appeal to larger constituencies than Sanders’s campaign could. Her electability argument won, but in the general election, she lost.

Polls show that Democratic voters are looking for a presidential candidate that will, above all else, be able to beat President Trump. They want someone who is electable, rather than a candidate that upholds certain values or policies. The concept of electability is always prevalent in primary and general elections, but it seems more salient this time around. In the past few months, we’ve seen major news sources discuss the electability of virtually every candidate: CNN ran a piece titled “Amy Klobuchar’s best argument for 2020: Electability,” The Hill writes that “Pollster says voters associate Biden with electability,” and The Week asserted that “Cory Booker is the only Democrat with a data-driven electability argument” [3] [4] [5]. These articles speak to a prevailing compulsion in U.S. politics boosted by the media. Time and time again, we hear about the primacy of electability; which candidates are electable is self-evident. But it seems as though no amount of professional pundits, number crunching, or daily horoscopes can really predict a candidate that can win an election. Trump and Obama were not considered electable. The fact is that nobody really knows what electability means.

Why then, do we keep talking about electability as such an important metric? Many of the more left-wing writers speculate that many media organizations (owned and operated by billionaires) assert moderate candidates are more electable to draw voters away from candidates they agree with, to ones more in line with the agenda of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. The priority of electability establishes a false dichotomy between wanting to beat Trump and caring about values. This may be why we see more moderate pundits defending the problematic backgrounds of candidates like Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in order to preserve their perceived electability metric. The focus on electability stifles productive conversations on the ideology that voters want to preserve by instead focusing on the intrinsic properties like race, gender, or sexual orientation of candidates that would allow them to effectively take on President Trump. 

In absence of an empirical definition for electability, the term grows to reflect collective biases for things that we believe but do not want to say. This is why on occasion we will hear that the United States is not ready for a woman in the White House, that a candidate is too progressive to win in a general election, or that a person will not appeal to white or middle-class voters. There are many stereotypes and biases that pundits and writers are latently reinforcing when they discuss electability as it relates to minorities and the working class. In other words, electability as a metric is inherently racist, sexist, and classist.

There is undoubtedly a way we can continue to consider electability in the 2020 primaries, but it requires a different perspective on what qualities a Democratic candidate needs in order to beat Donald Trump next year. Instead of thinking about candidates who can appeal to moderates, or even people who voted for Trump in 2016, we can, and should, think about candidates who appeal to and excite the 42 percent of registered voters who didn’t vote in 2016 [6]. A candidate who motivates and excites large constituencies who have felt disconnected from American democratic institutions, who felt no connection to policies or values that candidates in the past have espoused. A politician that is electable is not someone who can appeal to a certain demographic or the current Democratic base, but one that can establish an enthusiastic, grassroots campaign that transcends demographics and can bolster voters’ excitement not just around defeating Donald Trump, but about contributing to what they believe is a meaningful change in American politics.

Sources

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/02/09/the-shakeout

[2] https://time.com/4174587/hillary-clinton-new-hampshire-electability/

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/08/politics/amy-klobuchar-electability/index.html

[4] https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/442346-pollster-says-voters-associate-biden-with-electability

[5] https://theweek.com/articles/860637/cory-booker-only-democrat-datadriven-electability-argument

[6] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/voter-turnout-2016-elections

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Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

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