At the end of April, the actor and activist Alyssa Milano went on MSNBC to talk about Joe Biden and the presidential election. Halfway through the interview, she shared her strategy for the Democratic Party. “This primary to me is not about policy. It’s about beating Trump, period,” she told the hosts. “That’s it, end of story.”
Milano continued, bluntly punctuating her point: “It’s not about who’s going to make the best president.”
That sentiment neatly captured the central, perhaps only, promise of Biden’s campaign: that he is the Democrat best positioned to defeat Trump, a calculus that many voters have embraced. “I like Elizabeth Warren’s policies, I just don’t think she can get elected,” Greg Reed, a 72-year-old retired high school principal in Iowa, told the Los Angeles Times shortly after Biden announced his candidacy. “I believe Biden can win. That’s what I’m interested in. Beating Trump.” Perhaps, you, like me, have heard similar sentiments from friends and family members, and have wanted to rip your eyeballs out and burn them in a pyre.
Welcome to our electability conundrum, where the carefully cultivated narrative of one’s ability to win in 2020 has become the main metric by which to judge a candidate’s merits. If in 2016 we were subjected to endless takes on whether Hillary Clinton was “likable” enough to win, today, “electability” has become the new likability, which of course, was always just a fraught gendered code-word for the idea that white men with milquetoast politics are best positioned to win. (Except when they don’t!) It is, as the historian Claire Bond Potter recently noted, “a standard that history shows us was created and sold by men.”
In 2016, we were told that Trump’s victory threw all of our previous ideas of who might be electable out the window; last year’s midterms were supposed to mark a referendum on politics as usual—a sign that women, and in particular women of color, were on the rise. So it’s all the more curious that as we look towards 2020, “electability” has become a coded directive, offering us the same candidates that until the very recent past, we have been used to getting—bland, centrist white men in the vein of Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom, it shouldn’t need to be said, lost.
As Pete Buttigieg is celebrated in the media for his Midwestern roots and his intelligence, Beto O’Rourke for his ability to inspire devotion (at least until recently), and Biden for being the pragmatist next door who can win blue-collar workers, the women running, not to mention the men of color in the race, have yet to break through on similar grounds.
If the goal is to win elections, backing the most “electable” candidates may seem like common sense—but it’s a trap. So why do we keep falling for it?
Electability is not a new notion. It is, as Alex Pareene of the New Republic noted recently, an idea rammed down voters’ throats by Democratic Party officials following George McGovern’s loss in 1972, and Walter Mondale’s in 1984, which were widely interpreted as signs that candidates who were too far to the left could not win. To Pareene, it’s been wielded “to get voters to carry out a contrary agenda—not their own—while convincing them they’re being ‘responsible.’”
Many political scientists contend that the idea of a candidate’s “electability” is overrated. In a paper written in 2017, Andrew Gelman and Julia Azari argued that growing partisanship has rendered the electability question largely obsolete. “If nearly everyone is voting on party lines, then ‘electability’ is not such a concern,” they wrote. Seth Masket, the director of the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics, agreed, writing that more recent research that “suggests” that individual “cases may have been misinterpreted, and the penalty for ideological extremism among presidential candidates overstated.” Masket continued: “Trump’s election suggests that these concerns are for naught, and that essentially anyone with the party’s imprimatur may be elected if conditions are reasonably favorable for that party.” In short, anyone who ends up being the nominee has a good shot of winning, an idea that seems to be borne out in recent polls showing almost all of the top-tier Democratic candidates either defeating Trump in a head-to-head matchup or essentially in a dead heat.
But the main message lifted from Clinton’s loss and into this new cycle is that a woman, and especially a woman of color, has no shot at winning, and that progressive policy ideas need to take a back seat to who can defeat Trump. (An odd lesson, given that Clinton, a candidate with decades of political baggage, still won the most votes, despite running an abysmal campaign in key states).
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll from March, more than half of all Democratic voters prioritized nominating a candidate who was more likely to win over a candidate they were closest to on the issues, and one out of eight people reported that they planned to vote for the candidate who they felt could win, rather than their actual favored candidate. And the idea of electability can’t be divorced from questions of racism and sexism; in that same poll, a significant number of Democratic voters—30 percent—expressed a belief that other voters would be less likely to vote for a woman, with a similar number believing that others would be equally less likely to choose a candidate of color.
It should be underscored that this is all based on people’s perceptions of other voters, which aren’t necessarily reliable. Your aunt may think that her friends and neighbors won’t vote for a black woman, or a white woman, but she could very well be wrong.
But if enough people—from the political press to pundits to party officials to candidates to voters—buy into the narrative of electability, then it becomes an actual force in the world, through sheer repetition. As the philosopher Kate Manne told Vox recently, “Electability isn’t a static social fact; it’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them.” And that narrative of electability tends to favor, as with Biden, white men who are political centrists—knee-capping more progressive candidates and campaigns.
According to the New Republic, when the Progressive Change Campaign Committee surveyed its members, the group found “an inverse relationship between which candidate’s supporters thought their pick would make the ‘best president’ (Warren by a landslide) and which ones were motivated by their belief that their candidate is the most ‘electable’ (Biden).” “Barely a majority of Biden’s own current supporters believe he would be the best Democratic president,” Adam Green, the PCCC’s cofounder, pointed out.
It is dispiriting to realize that many of us are engaging in in a collective mass-pysch out, months before the first of us will even cast our votes in the primary. Americans are still a Puritan lot, afraid to actively pursue what we desire. Fear is a powerful drug. I remember acutely how I felt on election night in 2016, and I never want to be sobbing alone with my dog ever again. But life is certainly too short to hold your nose and resign yourself to choosing stale toast for breakfast when what you (and a lot of other people) really want is a nice three-egg omelet and home fries with a side of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
We are, as of Thursday, 270 days from the Iowa caucuses, and many, many, many more days than that away from election day in 2020. A lot can change from now until then, and it would be a mistake to throw our weight behind someone for whom we can only muster up a tepid resignation and to believe that their eventual win is foreordained by the gods of electability.
After all, we already nominated someone who promised us she was electable and able to defeat Donald Trump, despite not inspiring a whole lot of genuine excitement. We all know how that went.