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What Is The Electability Debate Really About?


The Democratic presidential campaigns are currently in the throes of what they think is a debate about “electability.” But they are finding the concept elusive because Democrats find it easier to talk around their issues than state them bluntly in public.

The concept of “electability” is usually applied to front-runner Joe Biden, but his campaign has been the source of some of the most inane comments about it. “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is,” Jill Biden told voters in New Hampshire, “but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I sort of personally like so-and-so better.’ But your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

On the other hand, Joe—shooting himself in the foot as usual—told the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart “almost anybody” can beat President Trump.

As Joe rambled on, however, he stumbled closer to his actual theory about electability: “I mean, I get overwhelming support from working-class folks of all backgrounds, and at the same time I get significant support in my career from African Americans as well as I get support from folks who have decided that we weren’t listening to them and voted for Trump last time. There’s not that many of them that switched, but the point is it’s a combination of turning out the vote and turning back that, those couple hundred thousand votes, less than that probably, that actually went to Trump, because we stopped talking to their concerns.”

Biden’s rivals and skeptics have a different theory of electability, though usually not expressed as such these days. At a big NAACP dinner in Detroit, Kamala Harris said: “There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest.’ But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room, who helped build cities like Detroit.” Democratic pollster Diane Feldman tells CNBC’s John Harwood that the “capacity to motivate younger voters is enormously important,” an implicit dig at Biden’s relative weakness with that demographic.

In the simplest terms, Biden’s theory of electability involves getting back some Obama-Trump voters, while the left would prefer to get back at Obama-Trump voters. This is why Biden’s detractors generally avoid explaining their theory of electability at length.

Before Donald Trump descended his escalator, Democrats were more open in discussing and promoting their progressive theory how they get elected. Since the publication of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” in 2002, the party’s elites have embraced the idea that capturing younger voters as the electorate became more racially diverse would lead to a political realignment lasting decades (that the book did not promise this became quite beside the point). The election of Barack Obama, a progressive swept into office with high turnout from minorities and younger voters, was often said to validate the strongest version of this theory. Democratic pollsters began focusing on the “Rising American Electorate” of unmarried women, millennials and non-white voters as a lens through which our politics should be viewed.

Until 2016, perhaps the biggest problem with the idea that electing Obama proved the strong version of “emerging Democratic majority” theory was that Obama did not strictly practice it himself. Particularly in 2008, Obama at least went through the motions necessary to not lose too many blue-collar white voters. (This is why his private comments about small-town Pennsylvanians bitterly clinging to guns and religion were so scandalous.) Indeed, Obama has advised the 2020 candidates he met “to always show up and make their case even in areas or in front of audiences they may not necessarily win.”

The 2016 election laid bare the flaws in the strong version of “emerging Democratic majority” theory. The left blames the result on racism, which may comfort them but leaves out a multitude of factors.

Barack Obama was a talented politician who became a historic figure; Hillary Clinton was not and did not. Clinton wanted to be the first female president, but young women tended to vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries. She lagged with the “rising American electorate” in the general election. The next Democratic nominee may well be a better candidate than Hillary because that’s a very low bar. There is no guarantee the next Democratic nominee will be nearly as good a politician as Obama was.

That Trump won in no small part on the votes of former Obama voters suggests that racism was not the determinative factor in 2016. The left also tends to conflate racism and white identity politics, when the connection is fairly weak. Moreover, linking support of Trump to his stances on race and identity may reverse cause and effect. The left’s rationalization further ignores that Trump otherwise was considered to be a moderate candidate relative to his GOP rivals, despite the number of liberal pundits who recognized it in real time.

Progressives bitterly clinging to the strong version of “emerging Democratic majority” theory are not fighting the last war; they’re fighting the war before the last war. For example, the Trump era has made education (in the sense of white-collar versus blue-collar) more politically salient than it has been in decades, particularly among white voters. In 2018, Democrats won the House largely on the votes of suburban, college-educated whites, particularly women.

In addition to regaining more blue-collar whites Democrats lost in 2016, Democratic campaigns ought to be thinking about how to retain these higher-income suburban white voters. Spoiler alert: proposing multi-trillion dollar programs to transform the economy is probably not how you do this.

Most of all, Democrats would do well to learn that every winning president forges his (or her) own coalition. Whatever one thinks of “emerging Democratic majority” theory, strong or weak, no one in the field currently fulfills it. Biden appeals more to African-Americans, moderates, conservatives, and older voters. Elizabeth Warren appeals to the farthest-left voters and those with college degrees. Sanders also appeals to the left, but more to younger voters.

The Democratic nominee in 2020 will have to run his or her campaign, not follow someone else’s theory of electability. And if various factions of the Democratic Party cannot get on board with that, perhaps President Trump is not the existential threat to the republic they have claimed he is.