Maybe Joe Biden has been in politics too long. When he finally announced his run this week, he found he’d outlived the campaign cliché that once would have carried him to the White House: “electability.”
After his launch, it seemed like the press didn’t know whether to describe Biden as “electable” or not. There was widespread pundit paralysis about the very meaning of the word, to the point where it’s no longer clear whether the term has positive or negative connotations.
“Joe Biden checks the electability box for whom?” asked Vanessa Williams of the Washington Post. “Joe Biden may be less electable than he looks,” added New York. “We don’t know for sure what makes a candidate electable,” added FiveThirtyEight.com.
The premise of a lot of these stories is that Biden, as a white male politician and longtime political insider, looks like an outdated idea of “electability.” Multiple outlets described it as a “coded” term, worrying that calling Biden or another white male candidate like Pete Buttigieg “electable” might be a “capitulation to American voters’ worst biases,” as Slate put it.
If this is the end of “electability,” it won’t be a moment too soon. Since I started covering presidential campaigns in the 2004 race, I’ve loathed the term. That year, John Kerry was chosen as the nominee in large part because, as Matt Bai put it in the New York Times, “electability became the issue itself” in the Democratic primary.
The 2003-2004 campaign press pounded home to Democratic voters that Kerry was the most “electable” candidate, and part of that calculus surely was that he was white and male. Additionally he had a military background, and boasted an incoherent enough position on the Iraq war that party leaders thought he’d be immune to “soft on defense” charges. We saw how that turned out.
I don’t think “electability” is being retired this year just because it has outdated race and gender connotations. It also speaks to a level of chaos and indecision across the top levels of the political establishment.
Once upon a time, “electability” was the most transparent code word in campaign reporting. People thought it meant all sorts of things, but really it just meant the inside choice, i.e. the candidate who would raise the most money.
If you were “electable,” you were probably also the winner of the so-called “invisible primary,” the smoke-filled-room/pre-primary choosing process described in the academic study “The Party Decides” in 2008.
The “invisible primary” supposedly wrapped up about two years out from Election Day, by which time core constituent groups and donors decided upon a desired nominee. Money and endorsements flowed from there. Once these decisions had been made, the campaign press usually followed, embracing whomever political insiders told them was the “real” candidate.
The odious part was not just that the term tended to favor politicians who looked a certain way (“looks presidential” and “Kennedyesque” were other code words for “tall white guy”). It was also used to nudge voters away from candidates who had non-traditional policy stances or were different in any way.
Any candidate with the slightest anti-war or anti-corporate tendencies, or who was too unyielding on labor issues, tended for years to have the yoke of “unelectability” hung on them sooner or later.
Howard Dean in 2003 was an early party favorite whose anti-war stance on Iraq and reliance on small, web-based donations quickly earned him the “not electable” tab. Dennis Kucinich was a level below “unelectable,” i.e. “fringe.” Bernie Sanders earned the tab repeatedly in 2016. Even earlier this year, Elizabeth Warren was pelted with op-eds slamming her as a candidate with “electability” problems.
At the coverage level, this is a gross process. Reporters batter candidates who don’t have giant war chests full of cash with questions. They’ll ask, “If you can’t win, why are you running? Are you trying to send a message to the real contender? Are you hoping to affect the platform? Aren’t you too liberal to win in the general? Are you positioning yourself for four years from now?” And so on.
Voters would pick up on this framing and rank candidates in their minds. For a candidate to overcome this, he or she would have to get past this unconscious sorting process.
In 2008, for instance, the campaign season began with Hillary Clinton owning such a substantial lead that she was routinely described as the “inevitable” candidate. As Barack Obama started to rise in the polls and raise unexpectedly large sums of money, Democratic aides began to push new arguments, telling reporters Obama was a lightweight who in a general election would be considered too liberal and couldn’t possibly win with Middle America because – well, that was unspoken, for a while.
As the race tightened, the Clinton campaign began to be more and more explicit, with Hillary finally saying out loud that Obama was struggling because his “support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.”
Obama in 2008 exposed electability as a bit of a con game. Voters, it turned out, didn’t like to be treated like sled dogs, told to mush on command. They could be more independent and more open-minded than politicians or pundits asserted. Obama won a lot of votes in places experts insisted he could not. In 2008, he outperformed both John Kerry and Al Gore overall among white voters (although those gains were almost all in the north and west).
“Electability” has had poor results on both sides of the aisle. In 2012, Republican voters were told Mitt Romney would be more electable against Barack Obama. He wasn’t. Four years later, electability was at the core of Hillary Clinton’s argument in 2016, and that was disaster as well.
Heading into 2020, it’s clear neither the press nor the Democratic Party leadership has any idea what electability means on any level anymore. There’s obviously a ton of confusion as to how to parse the results of 2016.
Does it mean a candidate with more progressive politics would be more electable against Trump? Does it mean, as Slate put it, that some Democrats will be “too spooked—or too sexist—to nominate a woman again”? Or is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post right, and Biden, who does check the traditional boxes of electability as pundits used to define the term, is the better choice to accomplish the most important task, beating Trump?
All this makes my head hurt. Maybe for once we should just ignore the whole concept of electability, and give up trying to tell voters which horse has (or should have) the best odds of winning?
We spend so much time in this business trying to tell audiences whom to be excited about. As 2008 showed, it seems to work fine when the news goes the other way, i.e. when voters tell us who they like and think has broad appeal. This is a perfect opportunity for campaign press to take the thumb off the scale, stick to telling voters what the candidates stand for, and let them sort it out. With so many candidates in the field, is there even time to do it any other way?