Electability is back in the news again thanks to a recent spate of attacks on Bernie Sanders, who seems to be the slight frontrunner in both Iowa and New Hampshire a week ahead of the first contest. The Pete Buttigieg campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail this past weekend warning his subscribers that “Bernie Sanders could be the nominee,” and the question of what constitutes “electable” candidates has re-entered the public discourse. Polling proves that the elusive term of “electability” is what Democrats prioritize most in 2020, which makes sense since none of this ideological infighting will matter much if Trump wins a second term. That has led candidates like Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick to make late entries into the race, asserting that their centrist politics have a better chance to win a general election than Sanders’s universal programs. The fact that the Senator from Vermont is currently polling the highest he has yet in the race suggests that this kind of attack has not been very effective.
The notion of what constitutes an “electable” candidate basically boils down to an older white guy with centrist politics. At least, that’s the insinuation behind this term that only seems to challenge progressive candidates, women and people of color. The thing is, if you look at who has actually won presidential races in the 21st century, they look nothing like the “safe” candidate imagined by the beltway consensus.
The 2000 Republican primary mainly pitted longtime “maverick” Senator John McCain against conservative firebrand George W. Bush. Al Gore ran against W. as the candidate to continue the legacy of the center-left Clinton coalition, and the man considered least electable by the beltway consensus in those two races won both of them, introducing the 21st century to the Republican Party.
The 2004 election pitted a weakened incumbent president (Bush’s approval/disapproval rating fluctuated between +8 and -2 throughout 2004) against longtime centrist Democratic Senator, John Kerry, who followed in John McCain’s footsteps in losing to a hard-right conservative Republican playing the kind of culture war politics deemed too extreme to win over “the political center.”
McCain lost again in 2008, this time to a black man with Hussein for a middle name. Mitt Romney finished 2nd in the GOP primary that year, and in 2012 his center-right politics also could not defeat President Barack Hussein Obama. Come 2016 when the 2008 establishment candidate/runner-up to Obama, Hillary Clinton, chose centrist Senator Tim Kaine as her VP in order to signal her intention to win Republican votes against a game show host who couldn’t stop telling everyone how badly he wanted to date his own daughter, Clinton and Kaine combined to make the most “electable” candidates 0 for 6 this century against those who have actually won the presidency.
The election of Donald Trump should have ended the myth of the reasonable moderate electoral juggernaut. Heck, that belief really should have died with Obama. That’s not to say that a theoretical centrist candidate who can dominate electoral politics can’t exist, but the point every 21st century presidential election stresses to us is that we don’t know what constitutes an “electable” politician. The presidency has been controlled by a Texas cowboy, a Harvard educated community organizer and a reality TV show star. The word’s very definition (“capable of being elected”) is only knowable after the fact. It’s more of a descriptive term than a predictive one.
What makes our current discourse around “electability” especially frustrating is that if The Apprentice’s Donald Trump and brand new unknown Senator Barack Hussein Obama are the poles upon which that range rests, then it’s a term which encompasses the entire Democratic Primary. It’s absurd to suggest that Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar cannot win the presidency, when a woman won the most votes in the last election. Picturing America electing a young gay man like Pete Buttigieg is not easy given how far we still have to go to ensure equal rights for everyone, but that seems more doable in 2020 than electing our first black president was in 2008, much less a black president who shared a middle name with the guy who made us so mad we renamed French fries just five years prior.
To say, like George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum did yesterday, that Bernie Sanders cannot win is to not only ignore consistent polling which reveals that he is the candidate whom voters generally trust most—but also his good polling with Independents—which supports the beltway’s traditional “electability” argument. Because American politics distorts ideology and only measures it upon one left/right axis (when all ideological surveying done by political science operates on at least two axes), there exists a self-evident notion that the only way to win Independent votes is to have policies closer to the center. Sanders’s appeal among Independents proves that it’s a lot more complicated than this simple façade makes it seem.
The belief that centrist politics appeal to Independents obviously has ideological merit that is supported by hard data, but politics does not lend itself well to broad mandates, especially when talking about the…uh…complexity, that is American political ideology.
In Monmouth University’s latest poll (an A+ rated pollster by FiveThirtyEight), Joe Biden wins the largest share of moderate to conservative voters at 35%, but Bernie Sanders gets the second largest slice at 19%. Michael Bloomberg places third at 10%—tied with “don’t know”—and no one else polls above 6%. Bernie Sanders can appeal to Independents in part because he himself has been an Independent his entire career. “Independent” is not synonymous with moderate, and that assumption is a polisci 101-level mistake that got Howard Schultz laughed off the stage last year, yet still exists as an article of faith among many of the Very Serious pundits on TV who dream of The Great (White) Centrist Hope.
The Bill Clinton presidency led the Democratic Party to declare that “the era of big government was over” in the wake of Reagan’s realignment, and this notion of centrism being an electoral inevitability took root in American politics—despite the fact that Clinton only won 43% of the vote in 1992. To put that in some perspective, that’s the exact same percentage of the Democratic Party that Bernie Sanders won in 2016. Neither should be considered a mandate, yet one was taken to be by a generation of political reporters.
Longtime beltway journalist John F. Harris admitted that there is an unfair bias paid towards this ideology which has not proven to have a whole lot of purchasing power among the 21st century electorate. Per Harris in Politico:
The right has been fulminating for decades about liberal bias in the media. More recently the left, including Bernie Sanders, has inveighed against capitalist bias caused by corporate ownership of news organizations.
Meanwhile, a quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike. It is a headwind for Warren, Sanders, the “squad” on Capitol Hill, even for Trump. This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.
A confession: I’ve got it. A pretty strong bout, actually.
One hundred percent of the presidents this century won either a primary and/or general election race against someone whom conventional wisdom deemed to be more electable than them, proving that candidates like Donald Trump and Barack Obama are objectively more electable than “electable” presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. The term is meaningless.
If you’re a Democrat who just wants Trump out of office, it may be more informative to look to recent history for your guide as to whether the incumbent president will win. Just before his reelection day in 1996, Gallup had Bill Clinton’s approval rating pegged at 54%. Super Tuesday 2004 saw George W. Bush’s approval resting at 53%, and in 2012, Barack Obama’s sat at 51%. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter—the last two first term presidents to lose reelection—both saw their approval ratings hovering around and below 40% throughout the entirety of their reelection years. Trump’s approval rating currently sits at 44%. It has not eclipsed 46% and his average approval rating throughout his entire presidency is 40%. If this trend continues through election day, it’s likely that any winner of the Democratic Primary will be definitionally “electable” in 2020, so leave the punditry to the pundits and just vote for who you think best represents your interests.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.