Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2021

Focusing solely on electability will not get Democrats elected

By SAM SCHATMEYER | October 3, 2019


Democrats have an electability problem — they won’t stop obsessing over it.

According to a FiveThirtyEight poll taken just after the last Democratic debate, a candidate’s “ability to beat Donald Trump” is the top 2020 concern of nearly 40 percent of likely Democratic primary voters. The next most important issue, health care, was the priority for a mere 11 percent. 

The left, of course, could be forgiven for having the singular goal of cleansing the White House of our corrupt, unstable, national embarrassment. After the psycho-political trauma inflicted upon Democrats after the Electoral College handed the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016, most primary voters are rightfully anxious of another Republican upset and are looking to give themselves the best odds next November.

But Democrats ought to be very wary of confusing their desired end with viable means. If the left chooses to run a candidate on the basis of electability alone, we will only have ourselves to blame when a Republican remains in the White House come 2021. 

The arguments of certain “electability candidates” and their supporters always read along one of three lines: ideology, identity or the polls. However, none of these arguments hold up when put into practice.

The ideology suggestion usually goes as follows: “My candidate has the right set of moderate positions that will draw enough independents to the polls in swing states that Trump won in 2016 to get to 270 electoral votes.” 

To suggest that, come general election season, Republicans won’t seek to label whichever nominee anything short of a Big Mac-banning Stalinist reflects a dangerous naivety of the modern Republican party. To quote the mouthpiece of the GOP, President Trump: “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.” To scurry to the center is to accept the premise of this ridiculous argument, forcing Democrats to play on Republicans’ turf. Whichever candidate we nominate, what will matter is how we measure their positions against the President’s. What matters less (at least in general election scenarios) is the positions themselves. 

The argument for candidates needing a certain kind of identity is flawed, as well: “My candidate has the right kind of down to earth, midwestern flavor to relate to economically anxious, white, Obama-Trump voters.” 

This reads: nominate an older white guy or lose Ohio. Someone should ask Barack Hussein Obama how that went. Also, perhaps nothing is more arrogant and defeatist than suggesting that the whole of the heartland is homogeneously white, racist, sexist and homophobic, and always will be. 

There are also problems with the third argument, that candidates immediately, statistically prove themselves: “My candidate is beating Trump in head-to-head general election polling.” 

General election polls don’t start to even come close to correlating with the eventual outcome until at least 100 to 200 days out. As of today, over 365 days from Nov. 3, 2020, general election polls reflect almost solely name recognition. This helps explain the (statistically meaningless) leads of Biden, Sanders and Warren over Trump. 

Thus, I would like to motion for a moratorium on weighing in on a candidate’s electability for the foreseeable future. Not only is it terrible at doing what it’s supposed to — predict political outcomes — but it also makes us all worse voters and endangers the party’s project. 

Think about the internal logic of “electability.” You, a hypothetical and quite timid Democrat, choose your candidate on some (inherently flawed) combination of ideology, identity or the polls to make the most attractive pick in the eyes of other voters. 

But politics is a game of narratives. You don’t act in a vacuum and neither do the voters you’re trying to convince to join against Trump. So when you and enough otherwise intelligent Democrats say X candidate can’t win in swing state Y because she’s a woman or because they’re too radical (or even some argument in the reverse) you’ve created a narrative that those “other voters” tune into and adopt. 

Which, guess what, means that your choice of candidate, selected based on the perception of what “other voters” think, is now just chosen based off their perception of what you and even other voters think and —

Yeah, it falls apart. 

This merry-go-round logic assumes that we, as Democrats, are the generally useless, horserace pundits that we read on Twitter, rather than the decisive participants in the primary election that we truly are. By ceding to the electability argument, Democrats cede their own agency as party influencers.

What we can do, instead, is make our primary votes count by evaluating the field, choosing our candidate, then getting fired up enough about their presidency, not just their impending victory, to work to convince our friends and neighbors — some of whom might be those swing voters and non-voters we need to take back the White House! — to get as fired up as we are. 

To win in 2020, Democrats will have to come prepared with an argument that excites people. When it’s our turn to make it to the voters we need most, let’s make sure we believe it ourselves. 

Sam Schatmeyer is a junior studying Political Science and International Studies from Buffalo, New York. He is currently studying abroad at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain.

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