Noah Harrison: Rethinking “electability”

Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 3:00pm

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The notion of “electability” has played a prominent role in the Democratic primaries. Voters overwhelmingly view former Vice President Joe Biden as the most electable, and Biden’s campaign has overtly sought to position him as having the best chance of defeating President Donald Trump. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., along with many commentators in liberal media circles, have pushed back on Biden’s perceived electability, arguing that bold new ideas are needed to energize the Democratic base. Still others have argued that “electability” is a meaningless notion since no candidates have an identifiably better shot of beating Trump.

While the latter camp is correct in claiming it is too soon to make meaningful predictions about the eventual winner of the general election, careful analysis of political trends can yield relevant assessments of electability. The evidence suggests that Biden does indeed enjoy an advantage in electability, particularly compared to Sanders and Warren. However, this advantage is not necessarily for the reasons many assume.

Biden’s electability stems from his ability to appeal to a broad coalition including independents and voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, political analysts poured over exit polling data and found a primary culprit for Hillary Clinton’s defeat: white, working-class voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Trump. These voters are disaffected by globalization and mistrustful of the government. They are seeking a candidate who appeals to their concerns. 

In the months following the 2016 election, many political pundits assumed that winning back these voters was key to retaking the White House. Now, however, the social rhetoric implies the Democratic party should prioritize mobilizing the base and turning out high numbers of reliably Democratic voters, particularly young voters and African Americans. 

Both of these objectives are important, but Clinton’s defeat was far more complex than a failure to appeal to these demographics. Young voter turnout was actually higher in 2016 than in 2012, and Clinton did not significantly underperform with young voters relative to Obama in 2012, meaning young voter turnout cannot adequately explain Trump’s surge in 2016. 

Sanders and Warren are the clear favorites among young primary voters, but I believe there is little evidence that nominating a liberal firebrand would boost young voter turnout enough to significantly affect the election. Young voter turnout has fluctuated somewhat throughout the years but has always lagged far behind older voters, even in the years Democrats nominated very liberal candidates like George McGovern or Michael Dukakis. This suggests that merely nominating a more liberal candidate is not enough to solve young voters’ low turnout as Sanders and Warren have implied.

African American turnout, on the other hand, fell sharply. While this could be partly due to Obama’s absence from the ballot, Democrats clearly need to do a better job of appealing to African Americans. Some have argued that Biden would fail to do so, given his gaffe-tendency and controversial legislative track record, but polling consistently shows Biden as the top choice among African American primary voters. If Biden cannot turn out African Americans in the general election, there’s little reason to think his primary opponents could do better, given that Biden is the demographic’s most-favored candidate. 

Of course, young voters and African Americans are not the only members of the Democratic coalition. Currently, Biden is the second-most favorably viewed candidate among all Democrats, behind Warren. If turning out the base is indeed key to beating Trump in 2020, it is difficult to see how Biden is in a worse position than his more progressive colleagues. 

Where Biden does have a clear edge is in appealing to the moderate swing voters. Trump won independent voters in 2016, but they have soured on his presidency and oppose his re-election bid by a sizable margin. These independents do not want to vote for Trump, but far-left policies do not appeal to them, and the proof is in the poll numbers. A majority of voters say they would not vote for a socialist, which is especially troubling for Sanders, who openly describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” Any far-left nominee would have to pivot back toward the center to avoid having the “socialist” label stick, and this could be a tall task for many of the candidates who have endorsed unpopular policies such as decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing and single-payer health care. Biden is one of the few Democratic candidates to oppose these policies, which positions him better among moderate swing voters compared to his more liberal primary opponents.

While voters are skeptical of far-left policy positions, they routinely express support for a “generic Democrat,” and Biden, as the mainstream former vice-president for a popular former president, is arguably the most generic Democrat among the top-tier candidates. This helps explain why Biden currently leads Trump by as many as 15 points in head-to-head polling, a significantly larger lead than those of any of the other candidates. This lead is far from a guarantee that Biden can beat Trump, but it’s an optimal position to start in and indicative of Biden’s broad appeal to voters.

Electability may seem like a trivial matter in a primary that has featured complex policy debates on health care, immigration and foreign policy, but polls routinely show Democratic voters believe the ability to beat Trump is the most important quality in a candidate. Biden’s electability may not be the most inspiring reason to support his candidacy, but it is nonetheless a powerful motivator for Democratic voters, and they deserve an honest assessment of it.

Moreover, the current conversation on electability demonstrates Democrats have not learned from 2016. Trump is unpopular, but the eventual nominee cannot rely solely on his unpopularity to win. Rather, the Democratic nominee must be able to build a broad coalition that holds together the entire base and reaches out to moderate swing voters. Biden offers the best chance of doing this, and his perceived electability is no myth.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.