You don’t exactly have to scour the internet to see Democrats are concerned about Joe Biden’s seemingly indestructible lead in the 2020 presidential election. There are certainly indicators that his lead has shrunk and Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris have all survived Biden’s entrance into the race and are the only candidates to poll at 5% or higher since he formally joined in April, but that doesn’t mean any of them are really challenging him. The latest Morning Consult poll puts Biden at 38%; Sanders, his closest rival, has just half the support at 19%.
Biden’s decent financial reserves and his image as party elder and icon of better days have made him a lightning rod for criticism from the left, both among partisans and independents (or members of other parties who generally support Democrats in the general election). That’s given rise to some quality memes.
A lot of these come from a place of genuine concern over the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. Voters across the political spectrum routinely claim that those primaries were rigged. The system was designed to favor established, well-connected candidates, and the Clinton campaign made a co-financing deal with the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, that pretty much everyone agrees should not have been made.
While changes were made to the primary process for 2020, the arrival of Joe Biden on the scene (officially) and his apparent popularity have led many to say that the DNC is trying the same old tactic: line up a centrist candidate and force them through the election.
But this misses a key detail: the DNC doesn’t control opinion polls.
In fact, the DNC has been relatively hands-off, setting up strict (if occasionally byzantine) rules on how the primaries will be handled. And while they might see Biden as a ticket to big donors, well, big donors tend to be big donors no matter who the nominee is.
With more than twenty candidates in the race, the DNC likely couldn’t be organized enough to coalesce behind one candidate anyway. Even in 2016, infighting at the DNC spilled out into the primary and became the first indication that the committee was really pushing Hillary Clinton as the eventual nominee. Twenty candidates means committee members are more likely to have a candidate from their state; a Californian on the DNC doesn’t want to cross their sitting U.S. Senator by orchestrating a conspiracy to elect Diamond Joe Biden.
Here’s an alternative theory: voters don’t like Donald Trump.
In a New York Times opinion piece in May, author Jill Filicovic argued that Democratic voters are prioritizing “electability” over a candidate’s record or policies. This focus on electability is common among Democrats, who are more likely to approach candidates with almost machine-like pragmatism compared to Republicans, who focus on ideological purity. This competition for electability is a kind of Kafkaesque crusade: searching for a candidate who seems electable without considering who they are or what they believe in is like trying to pick your favorite meal without trying any food.
Electability becomes self-fulfilling. If Joe Biden is leading in the polls, surely that means he is the most popular, and therefore he is the most electable candidate, as he is the most popular, and he is the most popular because he is leading in the polls.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton led the Democratic primary polls with 43%. Trailing distantly behind her was Barack Obama (27%), John Edwards (14%), and, way way way in the distance, Joe Biden (1%). There was not a lot of talk about Biden’s electability then – he was a long-serving senator but, of course, had not yet been vice president – but there was a lot of talk about Hillary Clinton’s. Clinton was the most electable candidate. Women voters preferred Clinton. Black voters preferred Clinton. She had that certain something.
But by mid-2008, that certain something was gone. Barack Obama, a one-term senator from Illinois, had bested Clinton in a series of debates (where he performed exceptionally well, cementing his image as a master orator) and slowly key voting blocs moved towards Obama.
In 2008, we saw the question of electability play out in the Republican primaries, where voters – convinced that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee – backed a well-known statesman over a younger rival. The result was that GOP voters picked John McCain, sidelining Mitt Romney until 2012, and McCain’s age didn’t give off “experience” as much as, well, “old” next to the young and optimistic Obama. Romney was a popular governor in a heavily Democratic state and, had he been the nominee, it might have been a closer election or even a third consecutive Republican presidential term. But Republicans wanted the candidate who could defeat Hillary Clinton and, well, they got exactly what they wished for.
Since 2008, Republicans have mostly pushed ideology over electability. The seeds of this were planted when McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin energized religious and anti-government conservatives (although it sent moderate Republicans to Obama or kept them away from the polls period), and when the GOP picked Romney four years later he was careful to offer up Paul Ryan, a virulently anti-government conservative, as his running mate. In 2016, few Republican minds were on electability, shunning cautious choices like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in favor of Donald Trump, a candidate who couldn’t have been less electable if he tried and, at times, it truly did feel like he tried.
Trump’s election reinforced the idea that Republicans could go with their ideological choices over their electability concerns. It probably shouldn’t have: pro-Trump Republicans have not performed especially great, in part because of dislike for the president and in part because Trump’s election required a significant miscalculation on the part of Democrats: electability.
Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee on July 26, 2016. She had previously been First Lady, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. Even before that she was a respected prosecutor. She was a graduate of Yale Law. She was an American political institution. And she was massively popular, at least she had been months earlier at the start of the primaries. In February, Vox had attributed her primary success to understanding how to fundraise, how to connect to party leaders on the local level, and how to reach out to women and people of color. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie wrote back in 2014 that, if Clinton could keep the support of black voters, she would be able to win as a moderate Democrat: “At the risk of nitpicking, I think it’s wrong to call [Elizabeth] Warren “perfectly positioned.” Not because she isn’t talented and popular, but because liberals—or at least, self-identified liberals—aren’t enough to win a Democratic primary.” Bouie argued that the support of black voters was critical because they make up a large portion of the Democratic Party’s base. “Accordingly, it’s when black Americans back a challenger that the establishment candidate falters, which is to say that if Hillary Clinton had kept a decent share of the black vote, she would have become the Democratic nominee, regardless of liberal disdain for her candidacy.” He connects Obama’s success with black voters – and Clinton’s eventually loss – to Obama emergent electability: “Obama’s huge black support only came after his first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, where he proved himself a strong candidate with broad appeal.” That became the catalyst for Obama; only once he had proven that he, too, was electable, did black voters begin to support him and leave Clinton behind.
“It’s when black Americans back a challenger that the establishment candidate falters.”Jamelle Bouie, Slate
Sanders’ electability was something that the Clinton campaign pushed back on from the very beginning. They argued that Americans wouldn’t elect a self-identified socialist. Whether or not it was true, it played into the electability narrative: other people won’t vote for him, so why should you?
It’s hard to nail down exactly what makes a candidate “electable.” What is it that made voters convinced Hillary Clinton was electable? And were they wrong? Clinton did win the popular vote in 2016, after all. And while Clinton lost Wisconsin and Michigan, traditionally Democratic states that had supported Sanders in the primaries, she also lost Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, swing states where she had won the primaries. Was she not electable in those states alone? Why?
Clinton’s loss in 2016 had the opposite effect on Democrats as McCain’s loss in 2008. While Republican saw McCain’s loss as proof that electability wasn’t a surefire way to win and began pushing for ideologically purer nominees, Democrats immediately proclaimed that Clinton must not have been as electable as they thought. That was the problem, of course. That or Russians, maybe.
As the 2020 election ramps up, the question for Democrats is: who is the most electable? Who will surely stop Donald Trump in 2020? Who, in other words, is inevitable?
That’s really what the question is, isn’t it? When we want to know which candidate is most electable, we’re asking which candidate is most certain to win, which candidate is unstoppable. We’re looking for the candidate who will win no matter what happens. A guarantee, a protection against the possibility of President Other Guy. Voters desire the most electable candidate because they read most electable as most certain. After the 2016 election, pundits slammed the DNC for getting it wrong.”Who knows what might have emerged if Super Delegates faithfully determined the most electable ticket. It might have been a Clinton/Sanders ticket or vice versa, or perhaps a compromise ticket like a Joe Biden/Elizabeth Warren ticket,” wrote public policy expert Cyrus Mehri after the dust had settled. But what he really meant was Why didn’t the DNC formulate the perfect, undefeatable ticket? Why wasn’t a Democratic victory inevitable?
That fear of loss is what drives voters to look towards electability today. And it’s likely what’s shoring up Biden’s poll numbers. A voter might prefer Elizabeth Warren’s approach to the student debt crisis or might prefer Pete Buttigieg’s open and frank way of speaking or might prefer Cory Booker’s love of vegetables, but in the era of Donald Trump they want the panacea, the guaranteed cure-all that will wipe away Trumpism. They want an inevitable candidate, so they seek out an electable candidate.
When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in 2008, he reminded delegates, “that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it — because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.” Obama’s nomination was not inevitable; Hillary Clinton was more electable. And yet, he won, because he was able to persuade voters that he was electable, too. Maybe even more electable, who knows? But it took voters who were willing to believe that something mattered more than electability.
That’s what it’s going to take in 2020, too.
This series is part of Our Long National Nightmare, an Owl Line recurring series funded by supporters on Ko-Fi.