Democrats have 23 candidates but just one issue: Electability

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The 2020 Democratic race has 23 candidates but only one issue: Electability. Democrats appear willing to go with whichever candidate looks like the best bet to beat Donald Trump. A Pennsylvania Democrat put it this way to New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg: “On my list of ten things, 1 to 10 is to beat Donald [Trump]… We can’t play. This is all or nothing. This is the end game right here.”

That explains Joe Biden’s big lead in polls of the Democratic race. The latest poll of New Hampshire Democrats by Tel Opinion Research gives Biden a 21-point lead over second-place candidate Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Sanders beat Hillary Clinton 60 to 38 percent in New Hampshire. 

Vice presidents usually go on to win their party’s nomination for president for a simple reason: loyalty. Loyalty is a vice president’s job description. Nominations for president are dominated by party loyalists and — news flash! — party loyalists value party loyalty. 

General election voters do not value party loyalty. They want a president who is independent, not somebody else’s man. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s man. Walter Mondale was Jimmy Carter’s man. Al Gore was Bill Clinton’s man. The only vice president who benefited from the office was George H.W. Bush. He won in 1988 because voters really wanted a third term for Ronald Reagan. They wanted Reagan’s man.

Joe Biden is Barack Obama’s man. That’s an advantage for him in the Democratic race. In the Tel Opinion poll of South Carolina Democratic primary voters, Biden has a solid lead among African-American Democrats — 40 percent — compared with 8 percent for Kamala Harris and 2 percent for Cory Booker, the two African-American contenders. Being Obama’s man may help Biden in the general election as well. In 2018, Obama’s retrospective approval rating was 63 percent. Trump’s job approval has never reached 50 percent.

If you believe that the 2020 election will be a “battle of the bases,” the lack of excitement over Biden among liberal Democrats could be a problem. It’s commonplace to argue that the country is closely divided between liberals and conservatives, and victory goes to whichever side can turn out its enthusiasts in greater numbers. The corollary to that view is that there are no swing voters any more. 

Except that there really are swing voters. Not the white working class voters who turned out in huge numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 — they began leaving the Democratic Party when Democrats embraced civil rights in the 1960s. They haven’t voted Democratic in 50 years.

Today’s swing voters are mostly affluent, well educated suburban whites who are horrified by Trump. They delivered the House of Representatives to the Democrats last year. And turned affluent suburbs like Orange County, California, and Fairfax County, Virginia, into Democratic strongholds.

In American politics today, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. But the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. When I explain that to students, they usually ask, “What happens to voters who are wealthy and well educated?”

They are what sociologists call “cross-pressured.” If they vote their economic interests, they vote Republican. If they vote their cultural values, they vote Democratic. The choice was perfectly embodied in the 2012 contest between Republican Mitt Romney, the prince of wealth, and Democrat Barack Obama, the prince of education. 

Electability is as much a product of the times as of the candidate. No candidate could have appeared less electable than Richard Nixon in 1968. He had lost the race for president in 1960. Two years later, he ran for governor of California and lost that, too. ABC broadcast a documentary entitled, “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon.”

In 1968 the country was being torn apart by racial violence, student protests, assassinations and the Vietnam war. Nixon’s long experience in government looked just right for the times. He seemed qualified to — as he promised — “bring us together.” Especially because he was in the middle of the Republican Party between Nelson Rockefeller on his left and Ronald Reagan on his right. And in the middle of the general election campaign as well, between Hubert Humphrey on his left and George Wallace on his right. 

Ronald Reagan would have been difficult to elect in any year but 1980. He was too old and too extreme. In 1980, however, after four years of economic and foreign turmoil and Jimmy Carter’s “wishy-washy” leadership, Americans wanted a strong, decisive leader. Reagan went to great lengths to reassure voters that he wouldn’t start a war or throw seniors out in the snow.

John McCain looked eminently electable in 2008 — in part because he was suspect to conservatives. But the times were against him. The financial crash terrified voters enough to elect the nation’s first African-American president. Millions of Americans said to themselves on election night, “I never thought I’d live to see the day…”     

If Biden wins the Democratic nomination, his choice of running mate will be of unusual importance. He will be under enormous pressure to unify the party (and the Democratic convention) by naming someone who signifies diversity and inclusion — a woman or a racial minority. Or both, like Kamala Harris.

There is also the problem of Biden’s age. If he gets elected, Biden will be 80 years old in 2023 when he could run for re-election. If he were to decide not run, he would have to have a vice president instantly prepared to take over. In 2020, Biden’s running mate would have to pass the electability test, too.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

 

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates Al Gore Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Cory Booker Democratic Party Donald Trump electability Hillary Clinton Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Joe Biden John McCain Kamala Harris Mitt Romney Swing vote

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