Searching For Mr. Electable

As Democrats eye their 2020 White House candidates, it's best to recall that the "electability" path is littered with the bodies of losers.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Voters care more about electability than anything else.”

That statement sums up what appears to be the dominant feeling among Democratic primary voters this cycle. Except that quote, spoken by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to Newsweek, is from 2004.

Electability has been front and center since former Vice President Joe Biden officially entered the presidential race last week, pitching himself as the person best able to defeat President Donald Trump. He quickly jumped to a wide lead in polls of the Democratic race.

But candidates should beware: History is littered with men (and a woman) who campaigned on electability and eventually lost out. And electability is a measurement that often seems to benefit male candidates.

Few presidential nominating campaigns were as devoted to the electability premise as the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.

Those who had already cast ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire “told us that electability was a big issue, so we’re going to take just a few moments at the beginning to talk about how the race has changed,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said at the beginning of a debate ahead of the South Carolina primary.

"I'm John Kerry, reporting for duty," the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said at the start of his acceptance speech at his party's nomination convention. Many Democrats saw him as their best shot at unseating President George W. Bush. But that didn't happen.
"I'm John Kerry, reporting for duty," the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said at the start of his acceptance speech at his party's nomination convention. Many Democrats saw him as their best shot at unseating President George W. Bush. But that didn't happen.
New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The race ultimately winnowed down to two candidates: “Mr. Electable” (Sen. John Kerry of Massachusets) and “Mr. Likable” (Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina), according to The New York Times.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran and an experienced lawmaker with foreign policy expertise and a record of bipartisan work on veteran’s issues with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kerry appeared to many frightened Democratic voters to be the perfect challenger for President George W. Bush in the post-9/11 period of belligerent nationalism. Mr. Electable won the primary ― but lost the general election.

Kerry’s selection may have the most explicit moment in contemporary times where primary voters chose the “most electable” candidate ― over other considerations ― who then went on to lose. But it wasn’t the first or the last.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale wrapped up major endorsements from Democratic Party interest groups early in the 1984 election cycle because they believed he could beat President Ronald Reagan.

“’They believe that Mondale is electable,” Donna Brazile, then an adviser to Rev. Jesse Jackson, said after the National Organization for Women endorsed Mondale in 1983. Mondale won Minnesota, his home state, and Washington, D.C., in the 1984 election ― and lost everywhere else in the Reagan landslide.

In the 2016 Democratic race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made electability the issue as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rose in the polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

“Who’s the one candidate who can stop” the Republicans? one Clinton campaign ad asked. The answer: Clinton. In the general election, she won the popular vote, but, of course, lost the White House to Trump.

The thing is, Kerry, Mondale and Clinton were electable. (Okay, maybe Mondale had no shot.) So were GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and McCain, and Democratic nominees Michael Dukakis and Al Gore. Clinton and Gore even won the popular vote! But they still didn’t become president.

And their closest contenders in the primary contests all made electability arguments to promote their own candidacies, as well.

Gore, running against Dukakis in 1988, said that only a Southern Democrat could win the White House.

Edwards made the same pitch in 2004 against Kerry with a little bit of his personal background thrown in: “I am more electable because I know what it’s like to grow up in a working-class family.”

In that same Democratic campaign, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut also pitched his electability. “I have the capacity not only to unite Democrats, but to get independents and disgruntled Republicans to come together so I can actually get elected and defeat George Bush,” he said at a candidate debate.

“I have demonstrated that I am more electable than Walter Mondale,” Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who almost snatched the 1984 nomination from Mondale, said near the end of his campaign.

In the 1992 Democratic race, California Gov. Jerry Brown depicted himself as the party’s best choice by attacking then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as having an “electability problem.” In the same race, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey claimed he was the most electable because of his Vietnam War service. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin similarly offered himself as the candidate with the best chance of unseating President George H.W. Bush.

It is extremely rare for the two major political parties to nominate an unelectable candidate. The most recent examples occurred when Republicans chose Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrats picked George McGovern in 1972 ― both too extreme in their views for vast swaths of voters. Goldwater may have been overwhelmed by President Lyndon Johnson, but he was a harbinger of the coming conservative era; McGovern’s thumping by President Richard Nixon helped create a generational chasm among Democrats that plagued the party for several more political cycles.

It is an almost impossible task to determine who is electable when most of the options are. Indeed, some of those labeled as unelectable turn out to be winners.

Ronald Reagan (center) was "a sure-loser" in the 1980 election, according to former President Gerald Ford (left).
Ronald Reagan (center) was "a sure-loser" in the 1980 election, according to former President Gerald Ford (left).

Bill Clinton withstood attacks from Brown about his electability, won the Democratic primary in fairly easy fashion and then withstood a barrage of attacks over his infidelity and business deals to win the White House. Barack Obama’s full name ― Barack Hussein Obama ― and race were raised as reasons why he would be unelectable. So were his connections to ex-Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers and Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi.

Reagan was deemed too conservative to win the 1980 election by both the media and Republican Party bigwigs.

Reagan “is perceived as a most conservative Republican,” former President Gerald Ford said in 1979. “A very conservative Republican can’t win in a national election.”

“Mr. Reagan would be a sure-loser in November,” Ford added.

And, of course, there’s the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. No one thought Donald Trump was electable at first. A thrice-married adulterer famous for playing a rich person on television who called Mexicans rapists and murderers; called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering” the U.S.; talked about how sexually attractive his daughter is; and boasted on tape of using his fame to grab women “by the pussy” couldn’t be elected! Right?

But there he is. The 45th president of the United States. Maybe electability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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