In 2004, Electability Once Again a Mirage For Most Democrats

Posted January 2, 2004 at 2:59pm

Electability. It’s the great question mark many in the national media say still hangs over former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s ability to win the Democratic presidential nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

“What’s striking, and out of the ordinary, is the degree to which ‘electability’ itself has bubbled up as a voter issue in the 2004 primaries,” wrote Ruth Marcus in a Dec. 14, 2003, Washington Post opinion piece.

But journalists aren’t alone in promoting “electability.” Some Democratic presidential hopefuls, most noticeably Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and retired general Wesley Clark, base their own candidacies on their alleged general election appeal, and party activists who support someone other than Dean invariably make the “electability” argument.

“Once you look at electability and experience, I’m confident that people will gravitate back to [Kerry],” New Jersey state Sen. John Adler, a supporter of Sen. John Kerry, told the Bergen Record.

We will hear more about “electability” when the Democratic race boils down to a two-person contest, as the eventual “alternative” uses it to boost his candidacy and disparage Dean’s.

There is only one small problem with the electability argument: It never works. Or, more specifically, it hasn’t worked in the first election after a party loses the White House since the nomination has been decided in primaries and caucuses, not in mythical smoke-filled rooms.

And here is another bulletin: There is scant evidence that voters are paying any more attention to “electability” this cycle than they have in the past.

The party out of the White House has nominated a variety of kinds of candidates four years after losing the presidency. Sometimes the nominee has been the party’s most visible political leader. Other times, it has selected a principled insurgent and reformer. But electability has never been one of the strongest reasons for selecting that nominee.

In 1956, the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, the same man who lost to Dwight Eisenhower four years earlier. Since Ike had already defeated Stevenson and led him by more than 20 points in polling ten months before the 1956 election, it’s hard to see “electability” as the major reason for Stevenson’s second presidential nomination.

Four decades later, in 1996, the Republicans nominated Bob Dole, who by almost all accounts was the next Republican in line for his party’s nomination. For all his wit and knowledge of Washington, D.C., and government, Dole, then 73 years old and a veteran of more than 30 years on Capitol Hill, never looked like the Republicans’ antidote to Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century.

In 1964, four years after losing the White House, grass roots Republicans were angry enough at their party’s “me-tooism” that they nominated conservative Barry Goldwater, who never promised to win, only to be “right.” And in 1972, four years after they lost the White House to Republican Richard Nixon, the Democrats nominated George McGovern because they thought he was right (on the war in Vietnam and other issues).

Both Goldwater and McGovern came from the fringes of the political mainstream of their time, and each promised to bring passion and attract new voters to their party. They did some of that, but their nominations also created divisions within their own parties — divisions that almost ensured their defeat. But that didn’t stop them from being nominated.

Electability appears to be more important to a party that has been out of power for eight years or more, not for just four. Even then, however its importance is difficult to measure. But after four years out of the White House, members of a political party often are more interested in fighting among themselves than with the opposition.

For all of their talk about wanting to defeat George W. Bush, Democrats these days are in the mood to vent their frustration with their own leaders, as well as with President Bush — much as the Republicans were in ’64 and the Democrats were in ’72.

Yes, Democratic activists talk of wanting to win in November (and some people tell reporters looking for a good story that electability matters), but that’s a far cry from actually making a decision about whom to support primarily on the basis of electability.

While a December Los Angeles Times survey of Democratic National Committee members showed that a plurality (44 percent) said that a candidate’s ability to win was more important than his stands on the issues, a mid- November CBS News survey of likely Democratic primary voters found a very different result.

Two out of three respondents in the CBS poll said that it is “more important” to choose a nominee who agrees with their positions on issues rather than “a nominee who can win in November.”

To put it another way, “It’s about message, stupid.”

There is an interesting irony here. The strong anti-Bush feeling in the Democratic Party might logically be expected to rally grassroots Democrats behind their “most electable” hopeful. But instead, it has fueled the rise of the most anti-Bush candidate, Dean, who also happens to be the candidate with the most question marks about his ability to win in November.

Electability may be a consideration for some Democrats, for many in the media and for spinmeisters who represent underdog candidates, but history suggests it will not be a deciding factor in the race for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.