Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
While it should be apparent that we don’t really know what makes somebody electable or unelectable, we can know what questions to ask, or not to ask, when trying to figure this out. One question we frequently hear, which is of very limited value, “is America ready for a (gay, female, non-white, non-white female) president,” is a broad question to which the answer is, in most cases, yes, but it is not a helpful question because it is too general and not grounded in useful data. This question is phrased in such a way that it is meant to solicit an opinion confirming an existing bias, rather than for anybody to wrestle with the data.
There is a much more productive way to frame this question. Instead of an abstract question about for what the country may or may not be ready, asking how many voters who felt comfortable voting for Hillary Clinton would not feel comfortable voting for a gay, female, non-white or non-white female candidate is better approach and is the key to determining electability. Because the election was so close in 2016, and because of actuarial realities about support for the two parties, if everybody who voted in 2016 casts their ballot the same way in 2020, but those who have died who don’t vote and those who turned 18 since 2016 vote how their parents did, the Democrat will win. This will not happen exactly, but it is a good heuristic for understanding the race. In this context asking how many voters were comfortable voting for a vilified and largely disliked female politician in 2016, but won’t vote for a veteran and religious Christian man who is gay, for example, is the right question to ask. The answer I suspect is that almost all Clinton voters would be comfortable voting for Pete Buttigieg as well as for Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Corey Booker, Joseph Biden or most of the major Democratic candidates regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation.
Discussing electability, therefore, is not so much a discussion of can somebody win, but what coalition the Democrats want to try to put together. For example, if Biden is the nominee, he will rely on his potential strength among working class white voters and residual popularity with African Americans to win key midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. However, Amy Klobuchar would try to win those same states by persuading moderate suburban woman who are wary of Trump, but for whom Biden doesn’t really resonate. Similarly, Harris might approach those states by conceding more white working class votes while running up impressive numbers in heavily African American cities while also doing well among suburban voters. Some candidates, like Julian Castro would change the map even more, seeking to sweep the southwest, force President Trump to spend time and money in Texas while holding the Clinton coalition together in most other states. Similarly, Bernie Sanders, if nominated, could spark a political revolution and win the votes from many lower income white voters looking for more progressive economic policies.
Naturally, some candidates are more electable than others, but most of those who are not electable are on the fringes of the race anyway. It is reasonable that Democratic primary voters desperate to defeat Trump are concerned about electability, but it is nonetheless important to recognize that claims of electability by supporters are usually about seeking support for the candidate than about genuine claims that a candidate is uniquely suited to win. Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will be electable, but converting electability into an electoral victory is not easy. That will require discipline, a persuasive message, an ability to role with the punches and the ability to translate personal traits and vision into a winning coalition. This is much more difficult, and much more important, than simple platitudes about who is or is not electable.