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In 2019, Let’s Finally Retire ‘Electability’

A favored totem of the campaign press has long been useless, and now is actively misleading

Sen. Elizabeth Warren gives her victory speech at a Democratic election watch party in BostonElection 2018 Senate Warren Massachusetts, Boston, USA - 06 Nov 2018

Sen. Elizabeth Warren gives her victory speech at a Democratic election watch party in Boston.

Michael Dwyer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Bad news for anyone who had hopes of enjoying a few rancor-free months of 2019 before the presidential-election insanity begins. Not only is the race fully on, we’re already in our third or fourth toxic electoral narrative — the most recent involving that most infamous campaign cliché, “electability.”

The target was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) this week, but it’ll be a half-dozen other candidates by June, when (insanely) the Democrats will reportedly hold their first way-too-early primary debates.

The 2020 race unofficially began on December 12th, when former HUD Secretary Julian Castro announced the creation of an electoral exploratory committee (he supposedly is announcing formally this weekend). On Wednesday, the Atlantic ran a story suggesting Washington governor Jay Inslee was planning to add his name to what is expected to be a very long list of Democratic candidates.

In between came a New Year’s Eve announcement of the same by Warren. Her entrance was described in the press as code for “the first real candidate to run,” i.e. “the first Democrat with a national profile.”

A series of think-pieces came out within hours of Warren’s announcement. “Elizabeth Warren and the Democrats’ Electability Dilemma,” was New York’s response. CNN’s Harry Enten noted Warren’s midterm re-election performance showed she is a “below-par candidate.”

Enten, formerly of FiveThirtyEight, is now a senior writer for CNN and one of its lead data journalists. Accompanying his on-air comments came a poll-based article entitled, “Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown Score High on Electability; Elizabeth Warren, Not So Much.”

Chris Cillizza chimed in with, “Did Elizabeth Warren miss her chance?” His offering included the following passage [emphasis mine]:

A few years ago… Warren was courted by liberals unsatisfied with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy to make a late entrance… Had she done so, she could well have offered a more electable alternative to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders…

Politico added to the noise with “Warren Battles the Ghosts of Hillary,” a piece that argues the Massachusetts Senator has an issue with the cousin of “electability,” the equally vacuous “likeability” rap. The piece was a signal that any woman with “electability” issues is probably going to get a Hillary comp going forward (the same way campaign reporters for years compared any short male candidate to Mike Dukakis).

This was all in the first 48 hours after Warren’s announcement. We can expect to hear a lot more about “electability” in the next two years. Voters should understand: It’s alchemy and a crock.

In our current era, it should be buried permanently, as the 2016 victory of Donald Trump – the most “unelectable” politician to ever run for president after David Duke (I’m including “free ponies for all” candidate Vermin Supreme) – exploded what Bloomberg View called “everything we know” about who is and is not electable.

The role of “electability” has always been to convince voters to pick someone other than the candidate they prefer. The idea is to tell audiences which candidate has the broad appeal to win.

The metric pundits usually employ is, “Which Democrat could most easily pass for a Republican?” and vice-versa.

“Electability” tends to come up most in election seasons when the incumbent president is violently unpopular with minority-party voters. This is why people should be cautious now. With Democratic voters so anguished by Trump’s presidency they’ll pick anyone they think is the best bet to win, be on the lookout for experts pretending to know the unknowable — how the broad mean of voters will behave nearly two years from now.

“Electability” is how Democratic voters were convinced to pick John Kerry in 2004. Media outlets reminded us over and over that an anti-war candidate like Howard Dean could never win, and that a tall, “nuanced,” fiscally conservative veteran like Kerry “better fit the cold calculus of electability.”

Kerry was the living embodiment of “electability.” His position on the Iraq War was ambiguous and he spent much of the campaign pushing a “tough” image. Upon securing the nomination, the Kerry campaign released a video showing him with an arm around John McCain, and touting his defiance of the Democratic Party to vote for a balanced budget.

The 2004 race, we later learned in The New York Times, was about “electability itself,” with voters acting like players in a futures market, guessing how other market actors would behave down the line.

The result was a campaign in which Kerry didn’t win a single Southern or Southwestern state.

The same thing happened to Republican voters in 2012, when a near-consensus of pundits told red-staters Mitt Romney was the most “electable” choice in the field to take on the hated Barack Obama. We know how that turned out.

Then came 2016. Here is a sample of what some pundits said about the electability of Donald Trump:

  • “Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another ‘Home Alone’ movie with Macaulay Culkin — or playing in the NBA Finals — than winning the Republican nomination.” This is from the above-mentioned Harry Enten, who also noted in FiveThirtyEight that Trump wasn’t a “real candidate.”
  • “Cannot see what he is doing that might conceivably to anyone have political appeal.” Rachel Maddow, MSNBC
  • “Television, which has made Trump, will unmake him, turning his shtick into a transcontinental bore.” George Will, Washington Post
  • “I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot by Feb. 1.” Stuart Stevens, former top Romney strategist, on CNN
  • “I don’t think that Donald Trump is very likely to win the nomination in part because he’s not really a Republican,” Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, said. “He wants to tax the rich, right? There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.”

What the campaign press hasn’t yet grasped, despite overwhelming evidence, is that things like endorsements, the support of key donors and media approval have become negatives for significant portions of voters in both parties.

Richard Minter at Forbes, as far back as 2012, was one of the first writers smart enough to recognize that traditional ideas of electability were probably upside down. Writing about the Republican field that year, he noted the embrace of Romney by pundits, and particularly by the Republican Party establishment, would actually work against him.

[Voters] don’t like and don’t trust the establishment,” is how he put it.

He was right, other pundits were wrong, and Romney — despite what you might have read at the time — was never a serious threat to beat Obama in 2012. Pundits’ conception of where the “middle” is, and where crossover votes might be seized, has been way off for some time now. As Trump proved, the only thing we reporters know for sure about the future behavior of voters is, we know squat.

This is not to say Elizabeth Warren would be a good candidate against Trump, or Sherrod Brown would be a bad one. But after 2016, when cliché notions like “electability” led to catastrophic conceptual mistakes by Democrats — not the least of which being the Clinton campaign’s instinct to want to “elevate” the unelectable “pied piper candidates” like Trump — we should start digging a mass grave for such ideas.

Eric Levitz in New York last summer argued the smartest thing to do is just ignore the noise and vote for the best candidate:

Barring a sharp change in the political winds (or Trump’s removal from office), Democratic voters should ignore such punditry, and simply vote for whichever candidate they would most like to be president.

Sounds radical, of course. But why not try it?

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