Most discussions about “electability” boil down to what path Democrats need to take to win the White House.
Do they need a presidential nominee who mobilizes the base (including nonwhites, younger voters and those on the left) or one who attracts white, suburban swing voters and maybe even a 2016 Trump voter or two?
The ideal Democratic nominee — the candidate with the best chance of winning an election — would appeal to both groups, as Bill Clinton did. But what if no candidate shows that breadth of appeal? Or if more than one hopeful (following different paths) looks able, or even likely, to defeat President Donald Trump?
Many on the left take issue with the concept of “electability” at all. They argue that it’s just a rationale for supporting old, white men.
As a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List told Vox, “Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to.”
There is a kernel of truth to that, but it’s mostly poppycock.
The Democratic field has both men and women who are likable (California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden) and unlikable (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren).
The same goes for electability. Candidates have different assets and liabilities, though it certainly is true that observers sometimes err in evaluating the importance of both (as we did with Trump in 2016).
Each Democrat will have his or her own reasons for thinking this hopeful or that one is most “electable.”
Some of those reasons will constitute wishful thinking, while others will merely confirm preferences.
Undoubtedly, some calculations will be based on the candidates’ race or gender, or on their age or ideological positioning.
Over the long haul, survey data will establish a pecking order in the Democratic contest that will separate the wheat from the chaff, the electables from the unlikelies. And that’s when we will know the most electable hopeful — or, more likely, the handful of hopefuls with the best chance of winning next November.
Who is the most electable Democratic hopeful right now? It’s Biden, obviously.
He performs best in head-to-head ballot tests against the president, both nationally and in key states, and he has potentially broad appeal.
But Biden may not look like the strongest Democratic challenger to Trump three weeks from now, three months from now or next March. The campaign will affect the public’s perception of his appeal.
Crowded at the top
The early polls raise a more interesting and complicated issue. What happens if multiple Democratic hopefuls lead Trump in head-to-head matchups? What if three or four or five Democrats look “electable?”
In most polls, Biden does better against Trump than do other Democratic hopefuls.
But Sanders also bests the president in most national and key state polls, and other Democrats are running even or slightly ahead of Trump.
In the June 9-12 Fox News poll of registered voters, Biden led Trump by 10 points, Sanders did so by 9 points, Warren by 2 points, and Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 1 point .
A June 6-10 Quinnipiac poll found Biden leading Trump by 13 points, Sanders up by 9, Harris by 8, Warren by 7 and Buttigieg by 5.
In Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found both Biden and Sanders leading Trump by 12 points, with Buttigieg, Warren and Harris holding leads in the low- to mid-single digits.
Biden’s electability argument weakens noticeably if he and at least one other Democrat look roughly equally strong against the president.
Does it really matter to Democrats that Biden beats Trump by 10 points but Sanders beats Trump by “only” 8 or 9 points? Probably not.
Ultimately, the question of electability will likely come down to how people see the Biden path to election and the Sanders/Warren/Harris path.
Do they believe that the most progressive voters in the Democratic coalition would stay home if Biden, one of the more pragmatic liberals in the 2020 field, is nominated?
Would those voters risk the re-election of Trump because Biden isn’t progressive enough? That seems unlikely.
Or, do they believe that working-class whites will stick with the president and moderate, suburban female voters will return to Trump (or at least stay home) if their only alternative is someone like Sanders or Warren, two progressive ideologues?
Traditionally, nominees move to the middle during a general election because that’s where most of the persuadable voters are.
In spite of all the recent focus (since 2000) on “the base,” swing voters still determine who wins most competitive elections. That’s why Biden seems more electable now, and his path to the White House appears easier than Sanders’ or Warren’s.