Electability: worry about everything, panic about nothing
On November 4, just under a year out from the 2020 election, the New York Times and Sienna College released a poll that showed Donald Trump remaining highly competitive in six important swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin. Joe Biden is shown to be beating Trump by two to three points in each state (very well within the margin of error) and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren faring worse in comparison. This, of course, inspired a variety of hot takes that all somewhat revolved around notions that somehow Biden as the best candidate to beat Trump. However, the very next day, a Washington Post-ABC News poll predicted Trump losing the national popular vote to the three aforementioned candidates by 15 or more points if the election. It is statistically unlikely that a president could be elected through the electoral college and also lose the popular vote by 15 percentage points, especially when Demographic shifts are taken into account. This poll then inspired a whole other host of hot takes that repudiated the New York Times-Sienna College poll. To add to the trash can fire, a newly released Data for Progress-Civics poll has Warren beating Trump in key swing states by more than or equal numbers as Biden and Sanders, which directly contradicts the Times-Sienna poll.
No poll is necessarily more right or wrong than another because we are over a year out from the election and the future is highly uncertain. What we are certain about, however, is that there is no magic candidate with the Beat-Trump Infinity Stone. Not Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, not even Michelle Obama. That is the eternal dilemma facing Democratic voters this election cycle.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the most qualified nominee for president perhaps in the history of ever, was leading Trump by over five points in national polls, and in the crucial state of Wisconsin, she was leading by more than six points. Trump only had a one-in-three chance of winning according to the infamous polling site, FiveThirtyEight, who offered him the most generous likeliness. In the days before the election, Nate Silver and his goons were mocked as being too bullish on Trump’s chances of winning. Everyone else had Trump at a 15 percent or an eight percent or even a two percent chance of winning, but certainly not 29 percent. We all know what happened next. Donald Trump won, shocking Republicans, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, and even Donald Trump.
Now, Democratic voters are petrified that the person they will nominate in 2020 will meet the same fate. Warren leads those interested in sharp mental acuity and Sanders leads those who desire systemic change in Washington, but Biden leads those who want someone who is both strong in the polls and can take on Trump on major issues. The electability debate occurs not just in the green rooms of Morning Joe, but also in voter circles that are scared and desperately oriented toward avoiding another 2016. But that orientation, frankly, is bullshit.
The only thing that makes a candidate electable is their ability to actually win elections, which no one can really know until after those elections are over. In the Spring of 2007, no one would have said that the freshman junior senator from Illinois Barack Hussein Obama was electable. But he went on to win the most votes in presidential election history. In 2015, and frankly during most of 2016, no one would have said that reality TV star, steak salesman, and failed businessman Donald John Trump was electable. Then, Trump won 304 electoral votes and is now making life-or-death decisions from the Oval Office. The fact of the matter is: people became electable because they inspire voters to canvass, to volunteer, and to go wait in long lines to vote.
When voters and pundits, especially Democratic voters and pundits, discuss electability, they tend to discuss who is the most moderate, the most male, the most white, and the most heterosexual. This is the wrong way of looking at it. Candidates are only made electable when voters believe in them enough to phonebank, canvass, and vote for them. Obsessing over what the polls say is a position that will lead to confirmation bias. If you are only willing to support the candidate other people say they would vote for because they think other people will support that candidate, an unproductive loop emerges. After the 2016 election, Americans looked around and seemingly did not recognize 63 million of their fellow Americans. And that fact scared them.
So, now, because Democratic voters are terrified, they want someone—anyone—to tell them the right choice—the electable choice. They want someone to tell them who to vote for, that other people will vote for. But that is not how politics works. There is no savior, no pollster, no pundit who can tell the future and accurately predict an outcome. The best way to find a candidate that other people will support is to support a candidate that you believe in enough to convince others to vote for. That is the most electable candidate. There is no special trick to it, other than hard work and an efficient ground campaign.
The guess of who the American people will support is anyone’s guess. At this point, there is no certainty as to who will be on either the Republican or Democratic tickets. November 3, 2020, is just under a year away, and anything can happen. A major foreign policy crisis—not of the president’s making—could make Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg look appealing. A recession could hit in the summer of 2020 and make Elizabeth Warren and all her detailed policy proposals look appealing. Donald Trump could be proven right and his trade war with China could pay off, making him look more appealing. Trying to game out what the future holds is a fool’s trade. Instead of being so terrified of what we think might happen, we need to start taking the actions necessary to make what we want to happen, happen.
Image courtesy Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons