We Don’t Have to Settle for Mediocre Candidates: Doing so is Dangerous in 2020

Democrats have nominated the “safe choice” in the service of electability before. It didn’t work out so well.

EMPTY PODIUM
© Josh Berglund | Flickr Creative Commons

Politicians and elites are generally terrible at prediction: they routinely describe the electorate as more conservative than it actually is, most failed to predict Trump’s election, and even more were shocked to see Jeb! Bush and other establishment candidates crash and burn in the Republican Primary. Nowhere are these tendencies more damaging then when it comes to overestimating the importance of electability in the 2020 Presidential race.

The buzz around Joe Biden’s candidacy is consistently reduced to electability, a fact that Peter Hambry in Vanity Fair reminds us, is “how Democrats lose elections:”

Since Vietnam, every time a Democrat has won the presidency, it’s because Democrats voted with their hearts in a primary and closed ranks around the candidate who inspired them, promising an obvious break from the past and an inspiring vision that blossomed in the general election. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Barack Obama. All were young outsiders who tethered their message to the culture of the time. When Democrats have picked nominees cautiously and strategically — falling in line — the results have been devastating, as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton made plain.

It’s time to recognize that the electability argument isn’t an appeal to reason so much as a disingenuous attempt by elites to convince people they can’t have the candidates they actually want. It’s no coincidence that the same candidates who excite voters are also the ones who tend to favor shaking up the status quo in ways elites who benefit from the current system find threatening: Warren has unveiled proposals to fund childcare and cancel $640 million in student loan debt (both wildly popular) and seen her poll numbers rise; Sanders, with what seemed like a long shot socialist platform in 2016, has essentially set the bar for the Democratic primary field with Medicare for All, unnerving moderates in the process. Such candidates are routinely dismissed as unelectable not because their ideas aren’t popular, but because they aren’t popular with moderate voters.

And yet Trump’s own polling data offer a compelling argument that moderate voters aren’t the critical path to victory that pundits like to claim they are. Despite his dumpster fire of an Administration, Trump’s support rarely dips below 37%, indicating that his base is baked in. That his numbers never go above 46% suggest a ceiling that he is unable to crack. The reality is that Trump is a deeply unpopular President, who in part won because he ran against Clinton, who may have won the popular vote by 3 million ballots but whose high negatives proved an albatross for the campaign. As Steve Kornacki put it:

To win re-election, he’ll probably need this to happen again. Which means he’ll need an opponent who, by Election Day, is as unpopular as Hillary Clinton was in November 2016, when 54 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable view of her.

It seems foolish in 2020 to throw Trump an unpopular primary candidate, and yet that is what the “reasonable people” seem to be pushing. Hopefully, primary voters won’t listen.

I write about economics and technology. My views are my own.

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