Last week, Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, spoke before a small gathering of teachers at a bookstore in Manchester, New Hampshire. The National Education Association—the largest labor union in the United States—had assembled the meeting, one of several forums for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to vie for the organization’s endorsement in a competitive primary. The NEA had endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the previous election even though Sanders had cultivated strong support within the union’s national membership. “The push to endorse Clinton can’t be based on what we know about the differences between Sanders and Clinton,” the education blogger Fred Klonsky speculated in September 2015, shortly before the endorsement, citing the policy contrasts between the two candidates. “Bernie’s opposition to corporate education reforms is miles ahead of Hillary’s. Instead, the decision seems to be based on a claim of inevitability.”
In Manchester, Jill Biden, too, dispensed with the policy contrasts and reverted to a much simpler perspective commonly deployed in competitive presidential primaries. She emphasized her husband’s strong polling numbers, which show Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump in a general election by the widest margin among Democratic candidates. “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is,” Jill Biden said, “but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election.” Here, she took care to acknowledge her descent into crude punditry: “Polls don’t mean anything,” she continued, “but if they’re consistently saying the same thing, I think you can’t dismiss that.” Biden then issued a warning: “I know that not all of you are committed to my husband, and I respect that,” she said, “but I want you to think about your candidate, his or her electability, and who’s going to win this race.”
With her treatise on “electability,” Biden provoked groans from across the commentariat: “Jill Biden may have settled for her husband,” New York magazine writer Sarah Jones tweeted, “but I’m not sure why anyone else should.” The 20-plus Democratic presidential candidates who aren’t Joe Biden have spent the past several months characterizing electability as an unproven quality and, worse yet, a regressive standard for evaluating candidates in a progressive party. It has, in any case, betrayed front-runners in the past three presidential elections, most recently Hillary Clinton, whose electability hasn’t won her much since New Yorkers voted her to a second term in the U.S. Senate in 2006. A month before Jill Biden spoke in New Hampshire, presidential hopeful Kamala Harris addressed the annual NAACP convention in Detroit. “There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and who can speak to the Midwest,” said the California senator. “But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative.” Recently, The New York Times demoted a politics editor, Jonathan Weisman, for dismissing two Democratic representatives—Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota—as too left-wing and cosmopolitan for the Midwestern states that elected them. “Too often,” Harris continued in her remarks, “their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit.”
Biden’s primary rivals have struggled to reappropriate electability, a term that incorporates name recognition, fundraising prowess, centrist appeal, and, least of all, charisma into an easily understood standard. It’s the lifeblood of a modern presidential candidate. Waleed Shahid was a campaign aide for Sanders during the Vermont senator’s 2016 presidential run, and, more recently, worked in the same capacity for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her successful run for a New York House seat. He now works as the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group spearheading primary challenges against moderate House Democrats. Shahid describes electability as a watchword for the status quo. “The front-runner of the race will always make that the number-one question that’s being asked,” Shahid says, “because it’s in their favor to ask that question.” The dynamic is apparent in the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, where Biden, flanked by nine rivals at a time, has seemed most eager to argue with Trump. In general, the front-runners “want to portray themselves as the nominee,” Shahid says. Biden, at age 76, doesn’t want to indulge the campaign’s raucous conversations about socialism, identity politics, and the future of the Democratic Party. He does, of course, want to herald his time as Barack Obama’s vice president. Even without Obama’s endorsement, and even though Clinton preempted Biden as the party’s nominee in 2016, he now pitches himself as Obama’s rightful successor.
The most significant proving ground for electability is in Iowa, host of the first Democratic caucus, in February 2020. The state’s position in the electoral calendar makes it a microcosm for electability in all its mythical facets. (For whatever it’s worth, Texas Senator Ted Cruz defeated Trump, the second-place finisher, in Iowa three years ago in the Republican primary.) In Iowa—a rural, predominantly white, Midwestern state—the presidential candidates must excel at retail politics in folksy forums, as well as at political organizing within the intimate, peculiar caucus framework. To pay for these long and convoluted operations, the candidates must fundraise as they’ve never fundraised before.
Shahid laments this most basic and cynical measure of a candidate’s electability: “Can you raise money? That’s one of the first questions the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] will ask you if you want to run for Congress,” Shahid says. “You could understand how that creates a political system that is 100 percent rigged toward people who are wealthy or well connected.” In the 2020 presidential primaries, however, Biden struggles to sustain his financial advantage. Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg rival Biden’s fundraising totals despite his strong position among high-dollar donors. Buttigieg, a novice on the national stage, has outraised Biden by $10 million. In recent months, Biden has proved weaker than his inevitability might suggest. In Iowa, Obama—as a 2008 Democratic insurgent—proved his electability. In the same state, Joe Biden—the 2020 Democratic front-runner—now founders. But he’s yet to surrender his “front-runner” banner or his exclusive claim to electability in the general election.
It’s tempting to think of the term as a news cycle obsession for the political class—pundits, pollsters, candidates, strategists, etc.—but many Democratic voters would also prefer to support the candidate with the best chance of winning in the general election. In one recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters identified “a candidate with the best chance to defeat Donald Trump” as their “most important” concern in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. The majority of respondents—51 percent—prefer “a candidate who comes closest to your views on issues,” but 45 percent is a substantial faction with such a purely defensive anti-Trump aspiration. (In 2015, a similar survey found only 20 percent of likely Democratic primary voters prioritizing “a candidate with the best chance to defeat the Republican candidate.“) Shahid blames the two-party system. “It’s the Red Sox versus the Yankees,” he says, “I just love the Red Sox. I don’t really care who’s on the team or what their vulnerabilities are. I just want to beat the Yankees. I hate the other team.” In their respective “front-runner” presidential campaigns, Clinton and Biden have pitched electability as a soft, unifying quality, but the term’s usefulness derives from left-right polarization and the urgency it creates. Trump was the anti-Clinton candidate, and Biden now presents himself, in such singular contrast, as the anti-Trump candidate.
But, like other front-runners before him, Biden may well “win” the “electability” conversation in the primary only to lose the election. Trump may prove surprisingly “electable” once again.
The idea of electability has emboldened front-runners and tormented insurgents in U.S. elections for the past half-century.
In obsessing over it, the two major parties are primarily influenced by two former presidential nominees who excited party activists before whiffing hard in the general election: For the Republicans, it’s Barry Goldwater, the eccentric conservative whom Lyndon Johnson defeated to win his first full presidential term in 1964; for the Democrats, it’s George McGovern, the antiwar candidate whom Richard Nixon defeated to win reelection in 1972. The parties still vividly recall these elections, though they’ve drawn wildly different conclusions about them. The Republicans adore Goldwater, the godfather of movement conservatism. The Democrats resent McGovern, who ultimately disappointed left-wing activists as deeply as he disappointed the rest of his party.
Democrats can point to one successful, straightforward example where electability prevailed in its post-McGovern phase: the telegenic Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s defeat of Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic primaries, and his win over George H.W. Bush in the general election. In Clinton, Democrats identified a miracle-worker who, after the Reagan-Bush decade, reinvigorated a loser’s party. But electability has proved far more treacherous for both major parties in the 21st century. The young Illinois senator Barack Obama—“unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun,” as Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn once described him in a March 2007 memo—defeated the eminently “electable” front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 Democratic primary before beating the Republican nominee, John McCain, by seven percentage points in the popular vote. Obama might have dispelled the allure of electability once and for all if only his presidency hadn’t inspired the surreal, racialized backlash that persists through the current decade. Eight years after Obama’s election, Hillary Clinton, once again the “electable” Democratic front-runner, defeated the democratic socialist challenger Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary only to lose the general election to Trump, the most unelectable candidate to have ever been, well, elected to the presidency.
This charade is hardly lost on the Republican Party, which nominated Trump despite his seeming to be—to this day!—unelectable in the extreme. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, suffered a paradoxical discourse about his own electability. He was the staid alternative to the party’s right-wing firebrands, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, but Romney’s term as Massachusetts governor undermined his party’s crusade against Obamacare. Romney proved “electable” enough to lose the 2012 presidential contest to Obama by four percentage points. I spoke with one Republican operative who believes Republicans and Democrats have learned very different lessons from the past few presidential elections, much as Republicans and Democrats learned very different lessons from Goldwater’s and McGovern’s failed presidential runs. “I think a lot of people considered Mitt Romney electable because they projected that this guy out of central casting, with a business background, would be palatable to the largest group of Republicans and independents,” he says. In presidential primaries, Republicans have tended to elevate the senior figureheads: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Romney. “Romney got his name out there in 2008 and built up support, but it wasn’t his time. Reagan ran multiple times before he finally won. McCain ran enough times before he became the nominee. I think it’s wearing people down to be comfortable with them and establish that electability.” There’s a saying the hacks use to illustrate the big difference in how the two parties select nominees: Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. “Trump threw that out,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like the Democratic primary has picked up where the 2016 election left off.”
Jill Biden cited “the polls” as the most reliable argument in favor of her husband’s candidacy. But FiveThirtyEight senior political writer Clare Malone describes electability as a crucial but unstable quality in modern elections. “For Obama,” Malone says, “it was proving he could win Iowa, and then it was going to South Carolina and proving to black voters, ‘Don’t worry, I can win.’” In 2008, Obama forged an unwieldy coalition, including the notorious Obama-Trump voters who went on to abandon Clinton, and who may or may not support the 2020 Democratic nominee. “If any party should be three different parties,” Malone says, “it’s the Democratic Party.” If Trump’s election reflects the Republican Party’s formidability as a white monolith, then Biden’s struggle against 20-plus rivals reveals a diverse and precarious faction. For Democrats, Malone argues, the allure of electability persists because of Clinton’s 2016 loss, not despite it. “There’s pessimism because Trump was elected,” Malone says. “There’s pessimism about what America is capable of in 2020.”
In 2020, the pessimism concerns a large and diverse field of contenders, which includes three black candidates, a Latino candidate, an Asian American candidate, as well as five women less than three years after Trump defeated Clinton—hence Harris’s remarks about “who can speak to the Midwest” in Detroit. “It’s really talking about Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania,” Malone says. “[Democrats] want to win back those states, and they’re thinking about the demographics that are swing demographics: white people; white Obama-Trump voters; white, college-educated, suburban people who are a little conservative but maybe vote Democratic. They are worried about making those people skittish.” They’re worried, in other words, about the old factions that rendered Obama “unelectable” in Penn’s imagination.
So Biden’s rivals can’t prove their electability in the polls; they can only decisively challenge his claim to it by upsetting a statewide contest he might expect to win, such as Iowa, where Obama upset Clinton and John Edwards in 2008. For now, however, Biden’s electability amounts to an establishmentarian defense against Sanders, the provocative democratic socialist who appeals to the Democratic Party’s core factions but alienates the party’s leadership, as well as other Democrats who adopt his model.
It’s strange to think that electability could prove so decisive in determining the Democratic Party’s response to Donald Trump, the president who confounded so many journalists, pollsters, and partisans who strangely swear by it now more than ever. But Trump isn’t the only modern candidate who confounds this discourse. Sanders, at the national level, proved his left-wing movement’s massive potential. Beto O’Rourke, in Texas, proved with his 2018 Senate bid how enthusiasm could credibly threaten even the most complacent front-runner in even the most forsaken of states for Democrats. “Look at Stacey Abrams,” Malone says, referring to the former Georgia legislator who lost, narrowly, to Brian Kemp in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election. “[Abrams] registered massive amounts of new voters, and a lot of them ended up voting for her. To me, that’s a new model of electability.” Still, the term stands for strategy and odds, never mind ideas and ideals. “The thing that people miss about Stacey Abrams is she’s not actually progressive,” Malone says. “I wouldn’t even call her a moderate. She’s a pragmatist. She’s a black woman in a Southern, conservative state who understands that that’s how politics works.” Of course, these candidates have also proved the limits for this new standard of electability, especially given the country’s electoral disfigurement in congressional maps and constitutional law: Abrams lost the gubernatorial race in Georgia, O’Rourke lost the Senate race in Texas, and Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. In fairness, Biden is a loser, too: He dropped out of the Democratic presidential primaries not once, but twice, while ascending toward the presidency regardless. In his third attempt, Biden is somehow more electable than ever.