Photo courtesy of Kelly Kline / Flickr

Biden and the Electability Question

As the 2020 Democratic Primary looms around the corner, candidates are making their case to the primary electorate as to why they should be the nominee to take on President Donald Trump in the general election. Some have focused on policy, others on personality, and still others on morality, but one line of reasoning has become increasingly clear with a particular front-runner: electability.

Even before former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race, any careful observer knew that he would make a strong argument for his electability in his campaign. In deliberation before announcing this run, he reportedly thought that he was the best Democrat to beat Trump, and this ultimately swayed him to seek the nomination. Since launching his campaign, Biden has made electability a centerpiece of his messaging, as can be seen in his first television advertisement. Dr. Jill Biden, the former Second Lady, put it most directly at a meeting in New Hampshire, saying “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” arguing that her husband has the best chance to win a general election. 

Biden has not been the only campaign to stress electability. Senator Bernie Sanders has also made a point of emphasizing his ability to win a general election, adopting the tagline “Bernie Beats Trump” in social media posts and campaign merchandise. Indeed, while it is not a focal point of most campaigns, virtually every candidate has made explicit arguments that they would be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020; each point to polls that show them handily ahead of the President in a head-to-head race nationally.

Unfortunately for Democrats intent on winning the White House, at this point, these polls mean next to nothing. General election polls are notoriously unreliable, especially with over a year to go until the actual election. Despite all the data suggesting otherwise, one really has no idea of electability. As a result of an absolute failure of the Democratic Party in picking an electable candidate in 2016, Democrats still cling to the ability to beat Donald Trump as their most important issue by far, which benefits the former Vice President because he is able to appear electable.

Certainly, Democrats want to beat Donald Trump, but assessments about electability often stand in as code for whether a candidate is a white, straight, cis man. It is no mistake that the two candidates making the most successful case for their electability fit this mold, and the implicit bias against women candidates and candidates of color in the race so far cannot be ignored. Voting based on electability seems often to be grounded in the desire to shield one’s own biases and/or validate and empower those of others. These biases are rooted in the idea of what we see as “Presidential”—which to the American electorate is white masculinity, a discriminatory idea that the Democratic primary electorate has the power to rebuke.

Luckily, there is an opportunity to do better in this primary than picking the straight, white man for that fact alone. A diverse array of candidates are making inspiring pitches about how to make our country better, and Democrats would do well to mobilize behind a candidate they support on real issues, not a superficial guess about the ability to beat Donald Trump. Ultimately, the Democratic nominee will win if enough people are excited about their candidacy and their ideas inspire people to volunteer and vote. This energy cannot be predicted 13 months ahead or captured in polling data—it must be felt as an inspiring swell of excitement, personally moving one towards a campaign. If Democrats can find that swell, and pursue it passionately, they will ride it all the way to the White House.

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