Joe Biden has a bunch of advantages as he starts his campaign for president: universal name ID, a network of donors built up over decades in politics, the ability to take advantage of affection for Barack Obama, to name a few.
But it has quickly become clear that no factor is benefiting him more than the perception that he’s “electable.” In other words, there are lots of Democratic voters who may or may not like him, but they think that Republicans will like him, for a very particular set of reasons.
I’m picking on Biden here only because he’s the candidate who is benefiting right now from the completely wrong-headed way we talk about electability. The Washington Post Dave Weigel reports from the campaign trail that he has met many Democratic voters who genuinely like Biden. But Weigel adds:
“Just as many voters said that they had come to support Biden because he seemed best positioned to defeat President Trump - sometimes offering the names of candidates they considered more inspiring but less electable.”
If you’ve been reading the news about the campaign closely, you’ve probably seen a dozen quotes from primary voters expressing that belief just in the last couple of weeks. Polls seem to back this up; Biden is far ahead of everyone else when Democrats are asked which candidate has the best chance of defeating Trump.
It’s hard to blame them for thinking about it the way they do, because it’s what they’ve been taught for years. And it’s completely wrong. Judging by these anecdotal accounts, electability is threatening to swallow the Democratic nominating process.
To begin, we have to confront this simple fact: Every four years we have a discussion about electability, and every four years the consensus on electability is mistaken. A buffoonish, bigoted reality TV star without a day of political experience? Completely unelectable. A forty-something African-American senator with an Arabic middle name? Absurdly unelectable.
You know who everyone agreed was electable, though? War heroes with long records as respected legislators. Like John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Dole. Also electable: moderates who know how to reach across the aisle, like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Al Gore.
Despite all the evidence that the single most important determinant of getting elected president may be whether a candidate can excite their own party’s voters, we never treat that as a factor in electability. We discuss the electorate as though it has a fixed number of voters, and there will be no one who either stays home because they’re uninspired or turns out when they otherwise wouldn’t have because a candidate excites them. If that’s your assumption, then naturally you conclude that all that matters is whether someone can pull votes from the other side.
Not only that, you’re actively discouraged from thinking that the person whom you really like might be electable. After all, if you’re a partisan, and you love a particular candidate, that must mean they won’t be able to appeal to those magical swing voters.
And in the case of Democratic candidates, electability has come to be defined not just as being palatable to Republicans, but to a particular subset of Republicans: conservative white men. They’re the subject of hundreds of profiles: The Midwestern working-class white men sitting in diners talking about how Trump tells it like it is. They’re the voters Democrats need. If you’re not the kind of guy who can appeal to them, forget it.
And it is almost always a guy, and a white guy at that. The entire electability discussion assumes that if there are lots of sexist voters and lots of racist voters, then they must be courted and flattered and catered to, lest they become too angry and vote for Trump. If you have a long memory you might recall how in 2008, it was commonly believed that Democrats were making a mistake nominating Obama because Hillary Clinton was the one who had forged such a powerful bond with the white working class.
The idea that the path to success for a Democrat might lie elsewhere - say, with the candidate best able to organize and mobilize the millions of African-Americans and Latinos who would vote Democratic if they went to the polls - never enters the electability discussion. We seem unable to consider the ability to mobilize votes as a factor in electability, despite all the copious evidence that it is.
If you’re a Biden supporter because you sincerely love Biden, that’s fine. But it’s deeply ironic that with Democratic voters being offered the largest menu of options they’ve ever had, a field full of smart, accomplished, capable, thoughtful, charismatic women and men, those voters might just decide to go with whoever they think will appeal to Republicans, despite the fact that GOP party unity has become nearly absolute (despite all the talk of Republicans having reservations about Trump in 2016, he retained as much Republican support as Romney or McCain had).
But that’s what they keep being told they should do: Ignore their own feelings about candidates, and instead try to make a guess about who other people will like. There are few worse ways to decide which candidate to support.