In the last few weeks, Seth Moulton, John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee have dropped out of the Democratic primary campaign for president. Hickenlooper and Inslee both had resumes that in previous elections could have made them frontrunners for the nomination, but their campaigns never got any traction this year. Both also immediately turned their attention to other elections. Inslee will seek a third term as governor of Washington while Hickenlooper will run for the Senate in Colorado against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. Moulton, like Eric Swalwell a few weeks earlier, has decided to run for his safe congressional seat rather than continue a presidential campaign he had almost no chance of winning. Gillibrand will return to the Senate.
As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
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.