The Volatility of the Electability Argument

The writers at New York Magazine’s Intelligencer page had an interesting discussion about whether Democrats are too nervous to nominate a woman in the 2020 primary. Early on in the conversation, Jonathan Chait extended the question to race as well.

My initial reaction to the question was to wonder if any of them had paid attention to what happened in the 2018 midterm elections when a blue wave, fueled primarily by women and people of color, elected the most diverse House Democratic caucus in the country’s history. But Irin Carmon shared some quotes from voters that seemed to reinforce the assumptions behind their discussion.

Irin: Anecdata: I just had breakfast with a bunch of Democrats in Trump-won coastal NC, supporters of Planned Parenthood who I spoke to about my book last night, and every single one was either Biden or Beto because “we have to be pragmatic.” Fear is driving this…

Irin: One (white) woman was like, “Everyone is asking whether we should focus on the South or the Midwest. Well, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and my answer is the Midwest.”

The pragmatic nature of the argument zeros in on electability—which puts the focus on two of the white men in the race.

Peter Beinart takes on the whole electability argument and compares it to an attempt to predict someone’s future from their zodiac sign. I found the subhead of his piece to be interesting: “When pundits anoint Biden—or Sanders or O’Rourke—as the likeliest to beat Trump, they’re making lots of dubious assumptions.” Other than running in the Democratic primary, one of the only things those three candidates have in common is that they are white males.

So both the pundits, as well as the voters Carmon talked to, are making an electability argument based primarily on a candidate’s race and gender.

One of the points Beinart addresses goes directly to the concerns discussed by the Intelligencer staff.

[E]ven if Biden did prove better able to win back working-class whites than his competitors, could he rouse the Democratic Party’s African American and female base? The fact that his advisers are reportedly considering asking Stacey Abrams to be his running mate suggests that they themselves have doubts.

If Biden needs an African American woman on the ticket in order to be electable, what does that say about the electorate and their concerns about women and people of color?

In making his argument against a focus on electability, Beinart reminds us of how we’ve all been wrong in the past.

In 2016, very few political writers, myself emphatically included, thought Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. Very few thought Bernie Sanders would win 23 states and 13 million votes in his Democratic-primary battle with Hillary Clinton.

The voters were lousy prognosticators too. Although polls generally suggested that Sanders would fare better against Trump, voters overwhelmingly believed Hillary Clinton had a better chance of winning the general election. And in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, they overwhelmingly predicted that Clinton, not Trump, would triumph.

All of this takes me back even farther in history to what transpired in the 2008 Democratic primary. At this point in that race, Hillary Clinton was the front-runner and most people assumed that the only real challenge to her nomination came from John Edwards, who eventually dropped out due to scandals. Almost no one was paying any real attention to that guy with the funny name—Barack Obama. After all, he is African American and would therefore not be electable.

On January 3, 2008, something happened that altered the course of the primary: Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus, beating both Edwards and Clinton by almost nine points. For many Democrats—especially African Americans—that changed their calculation about electability. If the black man with a strange name could win in a primarily white state like Iowa, maybe he had a chance. A few months later, Nate Silver put together a chart tracking Clinton’s support among African American voters, which demonstrated the dramatic shift.

Here is what that meant for the race.

Overall, Clinton lost 100 points of support among black voters in about 120 days: a truly remarkable achievement. Since black voters make up about 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, a 100-point swing among black voters translates to a 20-point swing among all voters. And that, essentially, was how the primary was lost.

I wouldn’t suggest that is predictive for 2020 because it happened twelve years ago and a lot has changed since then. But to the extent that Democratic voters are currently nervous about nominating a woman or a person of color, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. What we saw in 2008 is that a strong candidate with an effective ground game was able to overcome those concerns. We’ll have to wait and see if there is a candidate like that in the 2020 field.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.