Should we stop talking about politicians' "electability"? | The Tylt
Democratic voters have overwhelmingly indicated that electability against President Donald Trump is the most important quality they are looking for in 2020 presidential candidates. In a recent CNN poll, Democratic voters responded at a rate of 92% that having "a good chance of beating Donald Trump" is the characteristic they most value in candidates. Some say electability is not a real characteristic and is a way to push minority candidates out of races. Should we just stop talking about it?
Should we stop talking about politicians' "electability"?
Electability is frequently used as a way to disparage minority candidates who are considered too outside the "mainstream" to be viable nationwide. FiveThirtyEight writes that discussions of electability are used to keep certain candidates from ever entering races.
So discussions of electability matter in a system where a huge part of who wins is who runs in the first place, and a major factor in who runs is who other people encourage to run. If people are telling women and members of minority groups that they can’t win, that could be a factor in the underrepresentation of minorities and women in politics. For example, scholarly research at the state legislative level shows that both Democratic and Republican party leaders think there are some areas that will be very resistant to electing female members. A recent study based on a survey of local party chairs found that party officials, both Democrats and Republicans, were much more likely to question the electability of a candidate for the state legislature if the person’s name suggested they were black or Latino. This research is important because party leaders are often those who recruit and encourage potential candidates.
In short, “electability” at times ends up being used as an all-purpose cudgel against female and minority candidates.
Former vice president Joe Biden is currently leading in the polls, mostly on the strength of his perceived electability. However, as the Atlantic explains, electability can vary dramatically over time and amongst constituents.
Electability is extremely hard to predict. And when pundits discuss it, they often rely on unstated and dubious assumptions—which usually lead them to predict that the most centrist candidate with the most establishment support is the person general-election voters will like best.
...Maybe Sanders is the most electable because his pugilism can win over anti-establishment, anti-corporate Trump voters while eliciting a vast turnout among Millennials? Maybe Warren is the most electable because she’s as passionate as Bernie but more substantive and less radical, and she’ll inspire women as well? Maybe Harris is the most electable because she can replicate Obama’s massive African American numbers while pivoting to the center in a way white candidates can’t? Maybe Booker is the most electable because his message is as positive and unifying as O’Rourke’s, but he’ll do better among African Americans, and his unabashed religiosity will prove a secret weapon with evangelicals?
Vox reports that "electability" is frequently used to prevent candidates from fully entering the race, thus continuing to marginalize them within the political realm.
“Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to,” Christina Reynolds, a spokesperson for Emily’s List, a political organization that supports women candidates, previously told Vox.
“Electability,” in other words, could be another term that actively excludes candidates who don’t fit whatever the historical profile of a political candidate looks like. It’s an issue that emerged during the Georgia gubernatorial race, according to Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, an organization dedicated to bolstering women of color in politics.
Reporters at Politico, however, argue that electability is a real factor that must be taken into account when selecting a candidate to support.
However, just because electability is not like pornography—you can’t always know it when you see it—doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
...Sometimes, it’s not the most electable who wins, but the least unelectable. But that’s not an argument for willfully flying blind and ignoring electability altogether.
Primary voters will never be able to divine electability with clinical precision. But when the ultimate goal is winning 270 Electoral College votes, simply choosing a nominee based strictly on who you like is an enormous risk. A majority coalition invariably includes voters who don’t think exactly the way you do.
Many people still feel that electability is an important factor in selecting a candidate, while acknowledging the label is frequently used to diminish female and minority candidates. Per NBC News:
Although many of these voters said they recognize that the "electability" question is often unfairly aimed at women running for office, they stressed the need to be realistic about an electorate they view as sexist and a president who they say is only too eager to launch gender-based attacks.
"I think against Trump any woman is going to have difficulty with electability, that’s just kind of a reality we have to contend with," said Emily Van Kirk, 22, at a West Des Moines campaign event with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in March. “We need to make sure we are making an informed decision about who is actually going to be able to combat the things he says that are not only derogatory but just ignorant about women.”
The Washington Post reports that there are ways to use historical data to determine electability.
Observed electability isn’t a perfect concept, and it doesn’t predict everything about an election. It measures how candidates performed in their own states, not nationwide. And the context of a specific national election matters, too. Klobuchar’s Midwestern practicality might contrast favorably with someone as erratic as Trump, but someone with that style might not have done so well against someone like George H.W. Bush. Warren’s numbers weren’t great last cycle, but her populist style might work well against a (possibly) mid-recession billionaire Republican. Most importantly, election fundamentals (such as the economy) are going to exert a lot of influence on the outcome, and candidates can only bend that so much.
But if you want to figure out who is (and isn’t) electable, it’s probably best to start with how candidates perform in real elections rather than turning electability into some magical intangible.