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The dangers of electability and 2020 vision for Democrats

Brodie McLaughlin

Just as the 2020 Democratic primary voting kicks off, a concerning trend appears to be spreading across the national Democratic supporter base. There is a growing consensus that the concept of ‘electability’ is now one of the leading factors set to guide the future decisions of democratic primary voters. An overwhelming series of interviews by news organisations, like the New York Times, Reuters and The Atlantic, has affirmed the changing nature of the debate surrounding Democratic nominees: as it transitions away from a candidates’ ideological vision and more towards the viability of the candidate to win in November, and ultimately dethrone the current sitting President, Donald J. Trump. The current Democratic motto has now become “Who can beat Trump.

The fear and animosity of potentially another term in office for the Republican leader, as opposed to the championing of democratic ideology and vision, should be a serious cause for alarm amongst the Democratic ranks. Jeff Jones, a senior editor at Gallup, has suggested that this preference of future electability in the general election may even get stronger in times ahead. Extensive interviews and discussions with Democratic supporters have only further underscored this theme.

A lawyer from Minnesota stated at an Elizabeth Warren campaign event that people “are really scared to vote for who they like the best, because they’re worried that not enough people feel the same", and therefore they will fail in their goal of unseating Trump. The shock of the 2016 Presidential election has seemingly scarred many Democratic voters, with this sentiment broadly reflected across large segments of the Democratic supporter base.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s progressive ideology has been viewed by moderate democrats as a liability going into an electoral contest against Trump, arguing that such candidates will further polarise voters in the general election; with these supporters instead pushing for a more moderate, safer option. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar have been promoting their case as the more sensible and realistic candidate, attempting to convince Democrats that their nomination will appeal to the wider American community: including moderate Republicans and disappointed Trump voters.

Although electability is a necessary consideration, the prioritisation of the candidate’s electability, over belief in their vision and ideology may come back to bite the Democrats. Not only have recent polls shown the extreme unreliability in predicting electoral success – becoming even further unreliable when predicted by just an average voter – but the previous two President’s elected also run counter to this theme.

The successful election of Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 was largely due to the affinity felt by voters towards both candidates, and the public’s belief in their vision for change. The ability of these candidates to personally resonate with the American public, and their capacity to draw upon a deep-rooted belief in their vision for change from voters, was essential in their success. This contrasts with what we are seeing in the 2020 Democratic primaries, where many candidates are focusing on attaining a superficial prediction from voters that they are the most electable party nominee.

In 2008, President Obama came from nowhere in the polls during the Democratic primaries, before mustering an overwhelming sense of hope across a broad coalition, drawing upon the growing fatigue pervasive in American society. Obama as a candidate came to symbolise the chance for a national catharsis in America and the opportunity to overcome the last remaining racial barrier in politics.

Even though the shock of 2016 has fed into this obsession with electability, the 2016 result itself reflects reasons to avoid such rhetoric. Hilary Clinton’s perceived electability against Trump within polls and the broader community was persuasive, contributing to her successful nomination, despite offering no palpable change or vision. In contrast, President Trump was able to connect with large segments of American voters who felt ignored and neglected by Washington elites. Trump came to symbolise a change from the status quo, which many felt had been leaving large segments of the American population behind.

These past two examples alone highlight that both candidates and voters should prioritise vision over ‘electability’. Although the links between the 2020 election and 2016 are convincing – with Biden (an ‘electability’ candidate) even being labelled the “Hillary Clinton of 2020” – this article is not necessarily encouraging Democratic supporters to avoid voting for a moderate candidate. Simply, it is making the case that this choice should be based on personal affinity with the candidate that best reflects their political views towards issues important to them, such as health care and inequality, as opposed to an unreliable prediction of who the majority will support.

Although the early Democratic primaries have promoted both a moderate candidate campaigning largely on ‘electability’, in Pete Buttigieg, and a progressive candidate in Bernie Sanders, polls from the Iowa caucus have affirmed the belief that ‘electability’ appears poised to play a significant role throughout the primaries. Entrance polls highlighted that 60% of respondents were basing their vote on who they believed “can beat Trump.” Ultimately, however, as Elizabeth Warren asserted: “A lot of people just want to beat Donald Trump…But here’s the thing: fear doesn’t win. Courage and vision win.”

Brodie McLaughlin was the recipient of the 2019 International Studies award following his completion of honours in International Studies. He is set to begin a Master of Journalism in 2020 at the University of Melbourne.


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