If you have been paying attention to CNN or following the white men seeking the presidency, you might have noticed the term “electability.” When people say “electability,” they are referring to a candidate’s ability to win in a general election. A lot of good reporting has explained why discussions surrounding electability are racist and sexist. Women and people of color are frequently told that they are “not electable,” which discourages them from running for office and can perpetuate inequalities in representation.
Even though the idea of who can win an election is gendered and racialized, Democrats are basing their primary support on who they perceive as most electable. Indeed, 40 percent of Democrats surveyed in an NBS News/Wall Street Journal survey said that the most important qualification for a presidential candidate is the ability to beat President Donald Trump in the general election. A Monmouth poll from January found that 56 percent of Democrats favor the most “electable” candidate.
The idea of favoring a candidate based on electability is not new, but it is taking on a life of its own in the 2020 primary. Democrats are more likely to favor electability in the 2020 election than they or Republicans have been in the last ten years. FiveThirtyEight reporters Nathaniel Rakich and Dhrumil Mehta interpret the salience of electability as a statement of the stakes of the 2020 election. Democrats’ yearning for a non-Trump presidency, they say, overrides particular ideological qualms with any candidate. Yet their argument does not account for the salience of electability in other elections.
While there is no good data showing exactly how much voters care about an election, one can reasonably expect that Democrats want to see Trump out of office about as much as Republicans wanted to see former President Barack Obama out of office, if not more. According to Gallup, Obama’s approval rating among Republicans at this time in his presidency (2011) was only three percent higher than Trump’s today. In other words, Democrats seem particularly worried about electability for a reason besides the enduring importance of politics.
Democrats want an “electable” candidate because they are afraid. They worry that their coalitions can no longer function together as a winning party, that any coalition represented by a presidential candidate will decrease enthusiasm among others or even provoke rightward polarization. Distrust in the broader ideological trajectory of the party reflects the perception that ideological fractures might genuinely translate to unacceptable electoral failure.
Coalitional Politics Under President Obama
In order to understand Democratic insecurity, it is important to acknowledge the Democratic party’s coalitional composition. Political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins write in their 2016 book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats that demography and history make Democratic voters much more heterogeneous than Republicans. While the Republican electorate is composed mostly of socially conservative white people, the Democratic electorate is diverse. The job of a Democratic politician, then, is to stitch together broad coalitional agendas.
Nate Silver of 538 identifies five main groups in the Democratic Party: Party Loyalists, The Left, Millennials and Friends, Black voters, and Hispanic voters (sometimes in combination with Asian voters). In order to win national elections, Democrats need more than just people in their own party: they need to win swing voters in swing states as well, who do not necessarily subscribe to any of these categories. Presidential politics, then, becomes tricky. Democrats have to choose a candidate who can appeal to swing voters and weave together five groups with different agendas.
The best practitioner of coalitional Democratic politics in recent memory was Obama. He quickly earned high profile endorsements from party loyalists like Senator Ted Kennedy while maintaining an outsider status. He hired millennials and vocalized his opposition to the Iraq War. He threaded patriotism into a narrative of immigration and was the first African American nominated for the presidency by a major party. By emphasizing unity, he imagined a post-racial politics that knitted Democrats into the rest of the American electorate.
Of course, the Obama playbook was specific to Obama. Ta Nehisi Coates points out that Obama was able to lean on the support of African-Americans while touting respectability politics and boot-strap ideology. He positioned himself as the post-racial candidate, the black candidate that did not threaten white identity. While Obama may have earned the support of crucial white working-class voters in Ohio and Michigan, many white people still saw him as a threat to white identity.
Michael Tesler and David Sears say that Obama’s meteoric rise stoked more racial animus than in any presidential election for which there is data. Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz quantifies that Obama’s race cost him 4 percent percent of the popular vote in 2008 and 2012 (though this number is disputed). Obama’s success made the Democratic Party believe that a post-racial politics that paid lip-service to minority groups while pursuing neoliberal reforms and preaching unity could succeed electorally. In fact, the Obama playbook fermented some of the racial animus that it sought to move past—though in ways not immediately identifiable.
Not only did Obama’s existence raise a perceived threat to white identity, but events during the president’s tenure changed his coalition ideologically. After police killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American in Ferguson, Missouri, the tenor of race relations in the United States deteriorated (polls indicate that Americans saw race relations as worse than in the throes of the Civil Rights Era). On the left, new discussions of privilege, enlarged by Twitter, led to reflections by younger Democrats about the role of identity in society. Matthew Yglesias at Vox calls this process “The Great Awokening,” where issues of race, gender, and sexual identity moved to the forefront of the millenial political consciousness. The Obama playbook told Democrats to transcend race. The Great Awokening countered that such a move was naïve.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly anticipated the political tug of “The Great Awokening.” She discussed issues of systemic racism, misogyny, and bias more widely than Obama did during her second campaign. To her credit, she won the Democratic Party with a coalition more diverse than any of her opponents’ ones, Senator Bernie Sanders included. But then Secretary Clinton lost the general election and twenty-one districts flipped from Obama to Trump (there were only thirteen districts that went from Romney to Clinton). Clinton’s failure sparked a national reckoning about the failures of her campaign. Compelling political science evidence shows that Trump activated white resentment effectively in 2016 to flip those twenty-one districts and clinch victory. As many Democrats grew concerned about socially conscious policies that draw attention to issues of race and gender, white identity reemerged as a preeminent force in presidential politics.
Many Democrats fear that the Great Awokening provoked a reciprocal disdain in the white middle class. The critique of “identity politics” coming from Mayor Pete Buttigieg and other scholars is undergirded by the idea that recognizing the unique disadvantages of one group divides the electorate. Regardless of if the hypothesis that the Great Awokening is costing Democrats elections is true, (largely white) Democrats seem to believe it to be true. For the record, though, it is still unclear if the rise of “identity politics” is the cause of higher activation of white identity or if other factors like demographic diversification are more decisive. In any case, the party is thus split between those who want to draw attention to structural social inequities in the United States and those who wish to keep issues of identity on the backburner.
Simultaneously, the Democratic Party is fracturing on economic lines. A new class of Democrats, hardened by the 2008 financial crisis and inspired by the fiscal policies espoused by Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, now want the party to adopt more radically left policies. Obama and former President Bill Clinton view themselves as more left-of-center, but they strongly favored free markets. Now, elected officials are openly questioning the merits of capitalism and proposing much more radical redistributive policies. After decades of having to define themselves as anti-socialist, socialist dialogue is playing an outsized role in the national conversation.
The Democratic establishment sees the Great Awokening and the leftward move of younger Democrats as a threat. The changing alignment signifies tougher primary challenges and sets a high bar for creating governing coalitions. A more ideologically diverse candidate pool could lead to a brutal primary fight that then decreases general election turnout. The Democratic establishment also worries that their base is moving farther left than the swing voters in midwestern states whose support is necessary to win the presidency. 33 percent of Democrats want the party to become “more liberal,” 35 percent want it to stay the same, and 17 percent want to see the party become less liberal, according to a HuffPost/YouGov survey.
Looking to 2020
There are at least three prominent theories for how to beat Trump in the 2020 election. One is that Democrats could energize their base by running on social issues. The second is that Democrats could pull far to the left on economic issues. Third, Democrats could attempt to recreate the Obama coalition and effectively run on “hope” again. The worry is that any one leader will reflect only one theory.
If Sanders wins the nomination, for instance, those moderates who are convinced that the Democratic Party is moving too far left on economic issues would decline to vote for someone who endorses socialist policies. If Biden wins the nomination, conversely, then progressives may not turn out to vote for him. Each coalitional bloc is entirely convinced of the electability of its own positions. Coalition members are resolute in their conviction that their positions are correct, popular and can create victories in national elections for the party.
Democratic insecurity and divergence explain why Democrats are worried about electability. Members of the party desperately want to win, but do not trust other coalitional blocs to do so. That disunity could prove costly as 2020 looms on the horizon.