Let’s Talk About Electability

Electability. It’s become something of a catchword these days. Joe Biden and his wife Jill have been using it to make the case that he is the best choice to defeat Trump in 2020. Most of the other Democratic candidates have been saying that it’s overrated; that it’s just a euphemism for playing it safe, and that’s how we got Trump in the first place.

After all, they say, wasn’t John Kerry the safe bet in 2004? He was supposed to beat Bush, and yet he lost. Then there was Hillary Clinton in ’08, who lost the nomination to a charismatic, first-term senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama, who then went on to win the presidency. Once more, the safer, more electable candidate wasn’t really all that safe or electable. Hoping to prove that the third time would be a charm, the more electable candidate – again Hillary – bested Bernie Sanders for the 2016 nomination, only to lose the general election to Trump. In three consecutive tries for the White House, the safe bet lost each time. Case closed, they would say.

Perhaps. Or maybe the candidate that won the election simply ran a better campaign. Maybe it wasn’t a case of going with the safe candidate, maybe it was a case of not having the right message, or perhaps not being in the right place at the right time. If history has taught us anything, it’s that not all elections are equal.

Take ’08, for example. Most pundits agree that whoever the Democratic nominee was, he or she would’ve been the clear favorite going into the general election. By that time, the war in Iraq was very unpopular, and the economy was in the midst of a free fall. Any Republican running for the White House would’ve had a very tough time winning in such a political environment. Had Hillary won the nomination, she most likely would’ve beaten John McCain as handily as Obama did.

In ’04, the candidate that most progressives wanted, as it turned out, was Kerry. He was from Massachusetts, the same state that gave us the Kennedys and Michael Dukakis. But Kerry, like Dukakis before him, ran a lousy campaign and was too slow to respond to the “swift boat” attack ads that eventually ate away at his candidacy. Bush wound up edging him out in the general. To those who say a better candidate would’ve won, I would ask the following: Who? Howard Dean? John Edwards? Dick Gephardt? Please. Dean imploded after the Iowa caucus in that now infamous scream heard round the world. We all know what happened with Edwards four years later. Can you imagine the fallout if that had come out after he had won the nomination? And Gephardt is so insignificant, he barely rates as a question to an answer on Jeopardy. To suggest that any of these men would’ve fared better against Bush is to ignore reality.

But let’s get back to the election of our lifetime: 2016. To this day, progressives are adamant that Bernie Sanders would’ve beaten Trump. They point to the polls which showed him with a bigger lead over Trump than Clinton. I checked and, for the most part, Sanders did indeed have better poll numbers in the head to head against Trump. In August of 2015, the difference was 3 points and by June 8, 2016, when Clinton officially clinched the nomination, it swelled to 8 points.

There are, of course, two main problems with the theory that Sanders would’ve beaten Trump. The first should be obvious: for Sanders to have gotten the opportunity would’ve meant overturning the will of millions of Democratic voters who cast their ballot for Clinton in the primaries. The last time the DNC did something that stupid was 1968, when it stole the nomination from Eugene McCarthy and awarded it to Hubert Humphrey, who, by the way, didn’t even bother to run in the primaries. Humphrey inherited Lyndon Johnson’s delegates along with those of a few caucus states and that was enough to put him over the top. Disenchanted, many Democrats stayed home rather than vote and that resulted in Richard Nixon winning the presidency. I assure you history would’ve repeated itself had the DNC stolen the nomination from Clinton and given it to Sanders based solely on polling data.

And that leads me to the second problem with the theory that Sanders would’ve beaten Trump. The polling data itself was not a true indicator of how Sanders would’ve fared in a general election against Trump. And that’s because Sanders was never subjected to the plethora of negative ads that Clinton had to endure. The prevailing sentiment among pollsters was that Clinton would win the nomination, and that included Republican pollsters. Bernie, for the most part, got a free ride throughout much of 2015 and 2016. Small wonder his poll numbers were better against Trump. I have no doubt that had Sanders won the nomination, he would’ve been put under the same microscope that Clinton had been put under, and that would’ve driven his numbers down, perhaps even lower than Clinton’s. Who knows, Bernie might’ve been no better than 50 / 50 against Trump. My point is that head to head matchup comparisons only count if all the candidates are on a level playing field.

Four years later, though, progressives are singing a different tune when it comes to the polling data. That’s because this time around, the “electable” candidate happens to be Joe Biden, who’s been in politics long enough to be pen pals with Thomas Jefferson. In the head to head matchup against Trump, Biden’s overall numbers are better than the other candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. Biden’s critics insist they have a good explanation for this though. It’s called name recognition. Yep, you heard right. The only reason Biden is doing better is because he’s more well known than his Democratic opponents.

If that’s true, then how do you explain the polling numbers from 2016? How is it that Hillary, who’s perhaps the most well known and vetted candidate in the history of American politics, didn’t poll better against Trump than Bernie? And while you’re at it, explain to me how Bernie’s polling numbers against Trump this time around, though still decent, aren’t nearly as impressive as they were four years ago? As of right now, the RCP average has him plus 5.6 against Trump; in August of 2015, he was plus 13. If name recognition has any merit as a theory, shouldn’t Bernie’s numbers be better now that more people have had the chance to get to know him?

Perhaps that’s the problem; maybe the reason Bernie’s numbers aren’t better is because more people have gotten to know him and they don’t like what they see. In my opinion, this “name recognition” theory, like so many others, is nothing more than a feeble attempt by progressives to avoid an obvious and painful truth: that they simply don’t represent the views of most Democrats. Despite all the passion and energy generated through social media, most Democratic voters are not nearly as liberal as the progressive wing of the party. For instance, a majority of Democrats don’t support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. That’s just a fact. That doesn’t mean they don’t want access to affordable health care or that they think global warming is a hoax. It just means they support more moderate plans to deal with both.

The simple truth is that the most electable candidate, year in and year out, typically wins the election. This is not rocket science. From FDR to Johnson to Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama and, yes, to Trump, the candidate that won was the more electable candidate because they got the most votes. As of now, a majority of Democrats feel that Joe Biden is more electable than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. That could change. But if it doesn’t, and Biden goes onto win the nomination only to lose to Trump in the general, it doesn’t automatically mean that someone else would’ve gotten a different result.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda, are terms we used when we were kids. They serve no useful purpose in the vocabulary of any mature, rational adult.

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.