Why Democrats can’t break out of the ‘electability’ box

Why We Wrote This

As Democratic candidates prepare for their first debate, the race is being framed once again around electability, a self-perpetuating concept that’s both reflective of – and has a direct impact on – their standing in polls. 

Mike Segar/Reuters
An empty stage awaits the first 10 of 20 Democratic candidates who are set to debate over the course of two nights at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center in Miami June 26.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Who can beat President Donald Trump? It’s a question endlessly asked by news outlets and pundits. Most Democratic voters say they would choose the candidate with the best shot at beating the president over the candidate who most mirrors their policy preferences. As the first debates of the campaign get underway tonight, it’s likely each of the 20 Democrats will make a case for why they are the most “electable.”

Yet this focus on electability implies that polls are predictors of outcomes, rather than what they actually are: snapshots in time.

Right now, polls show former Vice President Joe Biden running ahead of Mr. Trump, including by big margins in key states like Michigan and Florida. That works to reinforce Mr. Biden’s standing as the Democratic front-runner and keeps the media spotlight on him – which elevates him more. 

“We see that Joe Biden would run about two or three points better than Elizabeth Warren would against Trump, and assume that’s a hard fact,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “But that position is driven by a lot of factors, especially name recognition. [And] some of that can be overcome over the course of a campaign.”

Who can beat President Donald Trump?

It’s a question endlessly asked by news outlets and analyzed by pundits. Democratic voters themselves, by a wide margin, say they would choose the candidate with the best shot at beating the president over the candidate who most mirrors their policy preferences.

As the first Democratic debates of the 2020 campaign get underway tonight and tomorrow, it’s likely each of the 20 candidates onstage will make a case for why they are the most “electable.”

Yet this focus on electability is problematic, political observers say, especially this far out in the race. The term implies that polls are predictors of outcomes, rather than what they actually are: snapshots in time. Indeed, that same predictive view of polling – and media coverage that was largely framed by it – set the stage for the shock of Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016.

More than two years later, however, the same feedback loop persists. Right now, polls place former Vice President Joe Biden at the front of the pack. Since he’s also running ahead of Mr. Trump – including by big margins in key states like Michigan and Florida – most Democratic voters see him as having the best chance of beating the president. That perception works to reinforce Mr. Biden’s standing as the Democratic front-runner. And as a result, the media keep the spotlight on him, which elevates him even more. 

According to a report in Axios, there have been 63,000 news articles about Mr. Biden over the past 10 weeks – far more than any other Democratic candidate (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is next, with 27,000). And articles about the former vice president have generated the most social media interactions, such as likes, comments, and shares. 

Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan calls it “a self-perpetuating effect.” Candidates who lead in the polls tend to be seen and portrayed as more formidable – which makes them more likely to continue to lead in the polls.

“We see that Joe Biden would run about two or three points better than Elizabeth Warren would against Trump, and assume that’s a hard fact,” says Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “But that position is driven by a lot of factors, especially name recognition. [And] some of that can be overcome over the course of a campaign.”

Consider: A survey by the Democratic digital firm Avalanche found that if the primary were held today, most voters say they would pick Mr. Biden as the nominee. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came in second, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren a close third. But when asked whom they would nominate if that candidate would automatically become president, Senator Warren came in first. 

Reuters
The 20 Democratic presidential candidates who will participate in the party's first debates in Miami (left to right, top row): Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; (left to right, middle row) former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; (left to right, bottom row) entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Eric Swalwell of California, author Marianne Williamson, and former Reps. John Delaney of Maryland, and Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

This was supposed to be a key takeaway from 2016: Focusing on who is electable – or the equally problematic category, “likable” – is shot through with implicit biases. It’s essentially encouraging voters to judge which candidate they think other voters might like best, instead of the one they like best. And those judgments can be shaped not only by polls but by assumptions about gender, race, and other stereotypes.  

“When your model for election coverage is the horse race and you get the horse race wrong, it’s bigger than just a missed call because you’ve based your entire coverage on who’s ahead, who’s going to win, what’s likely to happen,” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen told Vox’s Peter Kafka in January. “This should be a time when people in the political press are searching for all kinds of alternatives to the horse race.”

Mr. Rosen has suggested a “citizens’ agenda” approach that asks voters what they want candidates to be talking about and shapes media coverage based on those answers. Buzzfeed News Editor Ben Smith, in an August 2018 op-ed, ticked off a few other alternatives, like focusing on movement politics, or the policy differences between candidates, or the power struggles within parties. 

Dan Kanninen, a former Obama and Clinton campaign operative who now heads the Democratic communications firm STG, says digging into the values that candidates represent is another way of reframing political coverage. “We should be asking what campaigns are doing at their core,” Mr. Kanninen says. “Is this a campaign to get people to care about a cause? What is the vision? Who is doing that effectively?” 

That’s one standard for gauging candidates’ performances, particularly on the debate stage. The debates, after all, are held so that voters across the country can see how well candidates articulate their message and make the case that they deserve the nomination (or at least deserve to make it to the next debate).

“This is the first real chance for people who are not being seriously considered to break into discussion,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. Post-debate polls “will help us understand whether or not a candidate has done that. That’s the best use for these debates.” 

That’s almost all it makes sense to look for right now, with so many candidates – 20 contenders, spread out over two nights – competing for such limited time, Mr. Miringoff says. 

Of course, there will be other debates, and endless campaign coverage, still to come. The charge for voters, and the media, is to look beyond electability.

“This is the most consequential decision a party makes: whom it nominates for president,” Professor Masket says.

As the campaign goes on and the field begins to winnow, it’s likely the media won’t focus quite as heavily on Mr. Biden and the polls, he adds. “Everyone who’s serious, when we get down to 8 or 10 candidates, will get to make their case. The cycle works that way,” he says. “But at the moment, it’s very tough.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.