Blogs > Cliopatria > The Electability Canard

Dec 17, 2007 12:52 pm

The Electability Canard

The Fix is my favorite political blog; throughout the fall, Chris Cillizza has been analyzing the Democratic presidential race as a contest between the party's head (Clinton) and heart (Obama). This approach appears to have factored into yesterday's endorsement of Clinton by the Des Moines Register.

Even as an Obama supporter, however, this line of thought from many Democrats strikes me as odd. Based on public opinion polls, the most"electable" candidate is actually John Edwards, not Clinton. Indeed, Clinton's frighteningly high negative ratings could make her the least electable of the serious contenders for the nomination, including relative dark horses such as Joe Biden and Bill Richardson.

The heart/head split isn't new: to a much greater extent than the Republicans, the question of"electability" has factored into recent Democratic nominating contests. Its first clear emergence appeared in 1984. Gary Hart burst onto the scene with a second-place finish in Iowa and an upset win in New Hampshire—followed by Super Tuesday victories in the two largest states that held ST primaries that year (Florida and Massachusetts).

Walter Mondale countered with the claim that he was the safer, more electable and experienced choice. He suggested that Hart's proposals lacked"beef." Party professionals rallied to his side. And in the end, he prevailed on the strength of key wins in the Midwest.

It's hard to imagine how Hart could have been less electable than Mondale in 1984—or, indeed, how any primary voter could have voted for Mondale (the vice president in what many at the time considered to be a failed administration) on the grounds that he was electable.

A similar split developed in 1988. At various points in the contest, Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon, and Jesse Jackson represented the"heart" wing of the party. Yet all fell short to Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis, who based his strong third-place finish in Iowa on the theme of"electability." This message proved critical to Dukakis' triumph in key Super Tuesday primaries, especially Texas and Florida, where on paper he would have seemed to have had scant appeal.

While a Jackson nomination would have been a disaster for the party, it's hard to imagine that any of the other serious contenders in the race (and certainly Gephardt or Simon) could have been less electable than Dukakis—or, indeed, how any primary voters could have voted for Dukakis on the grounds that he was electable.

This was, after all, the same Mike Dukakis who was so"electable" that he had lost a renomination bid in 1978; and then had barely scraped through in a 1982 primary campaign against Ed King, described in that recession-prone year as"Ronald Reagan's favorite Democratic governor." He governed a state in which the Republicans were non-factors during his tenure. And he lacked any foreign policy experience beyond his status as the son of Greek immigrants.

The heart/head battle resurfaced in 2004. On the heart side fell Howard Dean and (to some extent) John Edwards. The"head" candidate, of course, was John Kerry. Kerry's theme that his military experience made him the best candidate to take on George Bush was crucial to his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In retrospect, of course, it's hard to imagine how any primary voters could have voted for Kerry on the grounds that he was electable. Despite representing overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts, he had survived two close races for the Senate (1984 and 1996). His voting record was well to the left of the nation's norm. And he lacked, of course, an ingratiating personality on the campaign trail.

How, then, could candidates such as Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry have successfully ridden the"electablility" card to the nomination? Part of the blame lies with the party's voters (especially in Iowa and New Hampshire), who have proven themselves to be very poor judges of what constitutes an"electable" candidate. This is unsurprising—the primary/caucus voters tend to skew left: their perception of the"mainstream" isn't exactly mainstream.

But much of the blame also falls to the media. One common complaint of press coverage of presidential campaigns (think of any time you see Kathleen Hall Jamieson on PBS) is the charge that political reporters focus too much on the"horse race" aspect of the campaign. Yet reporters have done consistently poor jobs in testing the"horse race" claims of candidates who make"electability" critical elements of their appeal.

It's unclear what path Democratic voters will follow this year. But those looking to the recent past might be a bit troubled at the party's inability to judge what constitutes"electable" qualities.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jeff Vanke - 12/19/2007

I think I remember reading that he "knew" three languages -- after Greek, Spanish & Korean. And that the Korean was from a military stint in South Korea. That would constitute more foreign policy experience than coming from a recently immigrated family.

Kevin C. Murphy - 12/17/2007

Good post. One would think after the Kerry fiasco that purported "electability" would diminish as a reason for choosing our candidate. I wasn't much of a Dean fan, but can anyone name a single state Kerry won in 2004 that Dean -- or Edwards, or Gephardt -- would've lost? Since any top-tier candidate will pull the Democratic base, it seems, and particularly with the GOP divided and in rout, we might as well follow our heart and let the chips fall where they may.

The prominence of the electability question, I think, is in part a product of the Dems being so gunshy after years feeling on the rhetorical/ideological run. (This also goes to explain the rather large generational divide between supporters of Obama and Clinton.) To quote Andrew Sullivan on Clinton, "[s]he has internalized what most Democrats of her generation have internalized: They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some quotient of discretion, fear, or plain deception is required if they are to advance their objectives. And so the less-adept ones seem deceptive, and the more-practiced ones, like Clinton, exhibit the plastic-ness and inauthenticity that still plague her candidacy."

As for the Krugman article posted above, I confess I have a hard time taking him seriously on this election anymore. Most politically-minded writers get to the point where the cart leads the horse, and they start crafting articles solely to promote their candidate of choice and/or bash the opposition. I've been this way in favor of Obama for awhile now. And Krugman, for whatever reason, has been displaying a similar affinity for Clinton.

But, to address his substance quickly, I really don't think what America needs now is populism. This is partly why Edwards remains my second choice. To my mind, Edwards is articulating the key problem -- the influence of money and corporate power over our political and legislative process -- but offering a denatured solution. What the left needs, IMHO, is not populism but a revival of civic progressivism, and while Obama may not be the perfect vehicle for said revival, he's closer than any of the other candidates by far.

Ed Schmitt - 12/17/2007

This is very interesting to ponder, and it actually goes to a deeper philosophical question - should voters try to divine the unpredictable currents of the American political stream, or should they simply make the best choice based on their own reading of what the country needs and let the chips fall?

It actually makes me think a bit about my own conundrum in advising students who are not sure whether they should try to position themselves for where they can best get a job in the ever-shifting market, or should study what they love and are good at, and let the chips fall. I can't help but think about my own advisor's counsel when he quoted Joseph Campbell that the wisdom of many civilizations suggests one should "follow their bliss."

Beyond all of that and more germane to your post, what do you think of Krugman's piece about realism v. idealism regarding Obama?;oref=slogin&oref=slogin

HAVH Mayer - 12/17/2007

Given that the test of electability is winning elections, all the hard evidence suggests that John Edwards is unelectable outside the Carolinas -- maybe people have noticed that. And the New Hampshire primary, in which the state's large number of independents are eligible to vote, is (unlike many other causcuses and primaries)actually a decent test of electability.

"Electable" in the Democratic Party means "won't turn off any of the core constituencies" Since these do not add up to a plurality -- as we saw in '04, when Kerry got a huge vote -- "electability" in this sense does not ensure election.