What If Electability Is More About Authenticity than Moderation?

There is a big disconnect in Democratic politics right now. On the one hand, a majority of Democratic primary voters are backing Biden at this early date—not because he lines up with their policy preferences, but because they believe he’s the safest and most electable choice.

Meanwhile, we continue to see stories of Trump voters gravitating not toward centrist candidates like Biden, but toward more progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Take this excerpt from Politico, for instance:

It was a startling spectacle in the heart of Trump country: At least a dozen supporters of the president — some wearing MAGA stickers — nodding their heads, at times even clapping, for liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

The sighting alone of a Democratic presidential candidate in this town of fewer than 400 people — in a county where more than four in five voters cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 — was unusual. Warren’s team was apprehensive about how she’d be received.

And then there’s this:

We don’t see these same sort of stories of Trump voters flocking to Biden. Instead, Biden’s support seems predicated on Democrats and anti-Trump independents who believe he’s the most electable candidate. Frustratingly, in the Trump era, “electable” is often code for white and male, a result of a narrative in which Democrats have convinced themselves that Trump defeated Clinton not due to any shortcomings on her campaign’s part but because Trump’s brand of racism and sexism cannot be defeated by a woman or person of color. This is both historically and practically wrong, creating an electability monster consuming the Democratic base.

In short, Democrats are by and large making the decision to vote not for who they want, but for whom they are told other people will also vote.

To be clear, this discussion is not about a majority or even large minority of Trump supporters. The number of actually persuadable swing voters is fairly marginal. But it’s important to note that Republican margins in many districts and swing states are already so small that it only takes flipping the most persuadable 3-4 percent of them to turn defeats into victories—and marginal victories into blowouts.

This isn’t the first time that more conservative Democrats have taken the cautious approach to electability and turned out to be wrong. In 2004, Democratic establishment politicians backed fellow establishment candidates like then-Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt over more progressive, authentic candidates like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. They then watched Kerry chase George W. Bush farther and farther to the right and eventually lose. Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton in 2008 insisted that she was more electable than Barack Obama, who they insisted was too far left to survive in a general election. I can still personally remember Valerie Plame’s husband Joe Wilson literally screaming obscenities at me across a table, insisting that I was clueless about politics, and that Republican opposition research on Obama would see him destroyed in a landslide against McCain. And then, of course, there is 2016, in which Clinton backers insisted that their candidate was far more electable than Bernie Sanders, despite considerable evidence that Sanders would indeed have fared better against Trump.

Conventional wisdom and popular cultural media and entertainment narratives dictate that Americans are looking for moderate politicians who will work across the aisle to “get things done” and make compromises on behalf of the American people. That narrative, however, is belied by just about every single recent trend in American politics, from the 2008 election to the rise of the Tea Party, to the aggressive challenge to the Democratic establishment by a self-described socialist, and, finally, the election of an overtly racist authoritarian who had bragged on camera about sexually assaulting women. Moderation, from either direction, does not seem to be what voters are after.

So what do persuadable “swing” voters want, and how should Democratic primary voters factor that into the selection of a nominee?

One consideration is that for a certain type of voter, authenticity is more important than any particular policy concern.

Authenticity is a frequently misunderstood concept, and should not be confused with honesty. Trump is a breathtakingly dishonest liar, but every time he opens his mouth, it’s obvious that you’re getting the real him, unfiltered. The real Trump happens to be a racist huckster with a total disregard for facts and morals, but when he speaks it’s fairly obvious where he stands on most issues and what he intends to do—even if he never follows through or has no idea how he will get there. When Trump lied about protecting Social Security and Medicare or about creating a better healthcare system without hurting pre-existing conditions, it was less tinny and inauthentic than the bravado of a man so clueless about policy that he didn’t even know that no conservative policy could accomplish those things.

It’s also important to note that the sort of voter who switches between Obama and Trump or Romney and Clinton is not really “moderate,” but rather something that political scientists call cross pressured. Rather than seeking to maintain the status quo—the generally stable corporate-friendly policies—these voters tend to be more radical than typical partisans. But they tend to be on the extremes of issues that are orthogonal to the American political party divide, and oftentimes they are confused or ignorant of basic policy facts or where the political parties stand on them. They also tend to be relegated to the outskirts of American civic life: they feel both the economic resentments that progressive populists speak to and the cultural and social resentments that conservative populists exploit. As a researcher, I’ve talked to Obama-Trump voters who matched the “Bernie Bro” stereotype of being both racist and economically egalitarian, as well as ones who were stridently in favor of social and racial equality but hated any form of taxation. So how do Democrats win over these sorts of voters, and how do those voters make their decisions when neither candidate matches their ideals?

One hallmark of these types of voters is that they strongly distrust politicians and the political system in general, believing that all politicians tell people whatever they want to hear while actually doing the bidding of special interest groups. They believe, not entirely incorrectly, that the whole system is corrupt. They despise partisan bickering—not because they believe that Congress needs more “moderate” peacemakers, but because they believe the bickering is an artifact of corrupt interest groups setting their lackeys against one another. When they say they want less partisanship, that doesn’t mean they want politicians from both sides of the aisle to come together to enact moderate policies. Many of these voters, after all, are not that informed about policy nuances or where the parties stand: some don’t even know which political party is the stronger defender of Medicare! Rather, they want politicians who they view as authentically placing the interests of real people ahead of corrupt special interests. The policy specifics are secondary to that. One of the great ironies of the 2016 election is that the famously corrupt and probably financially compromised Donald Trump somehow convinced a large number of people that he was so rich that he couldn’t be bought, and knew where all the loopholes were.

This is where candidates like Warren and Ocasio-Cortez can make a serious dent in Trump’s base. By being authentically themselves and speaking in plain English about the problems facing Americans, by talking clearly about the ways the wealthy warp the political system and exposing their opponents as corrupted agents of special interest money, they have a better shot than most at peeling off what few persuadable cross-pressured voters remain in the electorate. They can also inspire non-voters who have given up on the political system to give it one more chance. They likely have a much better chance of doing so than nominating moderate politicians who carefully parse their words and speak only in the most carefully poll-tested language.

It may well be, in other words, that Democrats have been getting electability wrong for decades now, and that the biggest obstacle facing Democratic voters is their mistaken belief in a silent majority of voters more conservative than themselves. It may well be that the same candidates who appeal authentically to progressive emotional sensibilities will also appeal to the voters Democrats most need to persuade in the purple districts and states they need to win. At the same time, they might just be the ones to bring out people who otherwise wouldn’t vote at all.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.