CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa ― Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack is better positioned than almost anyone in America to figure out how his party can defeat President Donald Trump. Loebsack is in his seventh term representing Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which went for Barack Obama twice before Trump won a plurality there in 2016. Before that, he spent two decades as a political science professor and was a go-to pundit on Iowa politics.
Loebsack plans to meet with every Democratic candidate running for president and make a decision on how to endorse by Labor Day. His No. 1 criteria for an endorsement?
“For me, it’s all about who can win the next election and beat Donald Trump,” he told reporters after an event for 2020 candidate and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
That electability-first stance puts Loebsack firmly in the mainstream of his party. More than half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters thought it was more important to nominate the candidate most likely to win, with only 36% placing more importance on ideology, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll from late March. That broadly matches other public polling, though the results can change depending on how the question is worded.
The perception of which candidates stand the best chance of toppling Trump will play a major role in deciding who ultimately wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, according to polling and interviews with campaigns, operatives and rank-and-file voters across the early primary states.
But many of those perceptions and theories ― Joe Biden can win back the Rust Belt! Isn’t Elizabeth Warren a bit like Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders can win West Virginia! ― are based on flimsy evidence. And unlike the simple question of whom voters like the most, the question of electability involves evaluating what other people might like. And that’s something voters ― and even political operatives ― aren’t great at.
“We don’t know yet” what electability looks like, said Loebsack, who announced last week he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2020. “The political landscape in America is really fluid right now.”
If the former pundit with a doctorate in political science who represents an Obama-Trump district in Congress can’t predict the best candidate to defeat Trump, how can anyone?
7 Theories Of Electability
The major candidates for the Democratic nomination are going out of their way to emphasize their ability to win elections and thump Republicans. Klobuchar hypes her own history of winning in rural areas in blue-tinted but still swingy Minnesota. Sanders famously hates talking about the horse race, but his senior campaign staff held a conference call for reporters to walk through his path to victory. Aides to California Sen. Kamala Harris note her toughness and ability to hold the Trump administration accountable with viral moments.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s sudden surge in polling and fundraising is due in no small part to the idea that his Midwestern roots can connect him to voters there. And on March 27, Warren emailed supporters a 1,600-word memo from her campaign manager aiming to combat questions about her ability to win.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and his supporters openly argue he can re-create the same coalition that powered Obama to back-to-back wins. And during a swing through Iowa last month, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke highlighted how his near-miss against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 helped scores of down-ballot candidates.
These cases rely on a handful of theories. Lanae Erickson, who runs the political operations at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, broke down the seven theories you’re most likely to hear from Democratic elected officials and operatives:
Mobilizing to win: Democrats should focus on young people and voters of color and focus more on flipping diverse Sun Belt states like Arizona, Georgia and Florida to get to 270 electoral votes.
The kitchen table theory: Where the candidate is on the ideological spectrum isn’t as important as a narrow focus on economic issues and avoiding divisive “culture war” fights.
The populist theory: Explicitly class-based and focuses on economic inequality. The most ambitious versions of this theory suggest Democrats could make extensive gains in rural areas and put deep-red states like Montana, Kansas and West Virginia in play.
Focusing on moderates: Win back voters in the aforementioned Rust Belt states who dislike the more ideological parts of both parties by emphasizing “country over party” and unity.
Fighting: Trump was able to run roughshod over the GOP primary field and eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 because no candidate was willing to fight as hard, or as dirty, as he was. If Democrats go punch-for-punch with Trump, they’ll win.
Purity: Democrats need to be bold and unapologetic about liberalism and progressivism, showing Americans how government can make their lives better. Voters will respond.
A broad path: Beating Trump will require focusing on parts of the Democratic platform and belief system with appeal to both the party’s base and to persuadable independent voters in order to win by a more substantial margin.
A candidate’s case for why he or she can beat Trump goes well beyond a simple progressive vs. establishment vs. moderate ideological contrast ― it goes into demographics, personal style and political strategy.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), for instance, is an avowed moderate who said the party’s “single-minded obsession” needs to be defeating Trump. But that doesn’t mean she’s lining up behind a centrist like former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“You cast it in terms of left and right. I think you need to think about it in terms of what matters to the average person,” said Raimondo, who is chairing the Democratic Governors Association, listing off a slew of economic issues: school construction, health care costs, low wages. When a reporter noted left-leaning candidates like Warren and Sanders are mostly focused on economics, Raimondo nodded: “I agree with that.”
High-quality public polling of general election matchups remains nearly nonexistent, making it difficult to evaluate any of these arguments.
Early surveys by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA have found minimal differences in how the different Democratic candidates perform among key voting blocs, said Guy Cecil, who runs the group. Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania remain the decisive states in Priorities’ modeling, regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. (Priorities USA backed eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, but is remaining neutral in the 2020 primary.)
“We see very little change in a lot of our work when we do head-to-heads against Trump,” Cecil told reporters last month. “We don’t see seismic changes based on whether the candidate is one person on another.”
With no real data to rely on, the candidates have started pointing to their past electoral performances for evidence of their strength. Klobuchar notes her strength in rural areas of Minnesota, which have helped her win statewide elections by margins of 24, 35 and 21 percentage points.
In its memo, the Warren campaign deployed its own version of this argument.
“Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate in this race who has defeated an incumbent Republican statewide in the last 25 years,” campaign manager Roger Lau wrote.
It’s the truth. Few of the top-tier candidates have been in truly competitive races against Republicans. Nine candidates or potential candidates ― Warren, Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Biden, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Rep. John Delaney ― fit into that category. Two of them failed ― O’Rourke lost to Cruz, and Buttigieg lost by nearly 25 percentage points to his Republican opponent in a race for Indiana secretary of state.
Others have had more luck, but all come with caveats ― showing how any election result is rarely due solely to the quality of the Democratic candidate.
Biden’s narrow win over a Republican for his first Senate term came in 1972. Gillibrand defeated an incumbent Republican for an upstate New York U.S. House district ― but did so as a pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration moderate, and has since moved to the left.
Warren’s win came in Massachusetts, and she ran about 7 percentage points behind Barack Obama. She and Klobuchar ran for Senate and for reelection during Democratic wave years: 2006, 2012 and 2018. Klobuchar’s last two Senate opponents each spent less than $1 million on their campaigns, a paltry amount for a statewide contest.
Hickenlooper won in GOP-leaning years in 2010 and 2014, but the first win was aided by a conservative third-party candidate splitting Republican votes. Unlike most governors, Bullock runs in presidential years, which are more friendly to Democrats.
‘A Dog Whistle For Maintaining The Status Quo’
Warren is the candidate who, anecdotally at least, seems most plagued by questions of electability. Voters in early states regularly say they like Warren ― but they’re not sure she can win.
Adam Green co-runs the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and is supporting Warren. He says he hears this sort of response from what he calls the “pundit voter” ― the type of person who jumps around looking at candidates and whether they can win: Harris attracted tens of thousands of people at a rally? Maybe it’s her! Buttigieg did a fantastic job at a CNN town hall? Maybe it’s him now!
“They’re people who are all over the place, but trying to be pundits as opposed to voting for their own values,” Green said.
Many Democrats questioned Warren’s political judgment after her decision to publicize the results of a DNA test that revealed she may have had a Native American ancestor approximately eight generations ago. Although Democratic voters in early states have told reporters they don’t care about the DNA test, it comes up over and over again in discussions about her viability against Trump. She had a chance to go toe to toe with Trump, and she faltered.
“People need to realize, she’s not just a joke, she’s not just a punchline,” said Leif Erickson, an attorney who went to a Warren event in Sioux City, Iowa, describing the candidate’s challenge of overcoming Trump’s taunts. “She’s a serious person.”
There are also questions about whether Warren is simply too liberal, something Sanders faced in 2016 as well. But polling shows that some of the senator’s big ideas ― a wealth tax, for example ― are popular with voters across ideological lines.
“The big structural challenge against progressives in this primary is this kind of ... media narrative that pits electability against bold transformational ideas, when in fact the polling shows they’re one and the same,” Green said.
Warren’s third challenge is the comparisons to Clinton, which she faced even before she announced her candidacy: If one smart, blonde, older woman couldn’t win against Trump, is there any chance a completely different one could?
Warren may be facing some of these comparisons because she is the most well-known female candidate, according to Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.
“She has been out there battling Donald Trump, and these other women have not,” Lawless said. “So a lot of the criticisms that people had about Hillary Clinton apply to Warren too. People are more familiar with her and are more familiar with her style and her policy positions.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t really believe that a woman can win the general presidential election. Hillary sort of proved that for me.”
HuffPost’s polling backed up the idea that Warren faces an electability hurdle. Biden, who has yet to announce his candidacy, is the only contender the majority of Democratic voters named as capable of winning the presidential election ― 69% believe he can beat Trump. Sanders comes in a distant second at 49%, followed by O’Rourke at 43% and Harris at 37%.
Only a third of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters think Warren can win; she’s followed by Booker at 25%. All the other candidates in the field ranked even lower than Booker.
Like any other early campaign poll, the question functions at least partially as a test of candidates’ name recognition and general familiarity ― voters are less likely to have confidence in a candidate they’ve heard little about.
To the extent that these voters are considering demographics, they’re more likely than not to think candidates who veer from the standard-issue white male politician are at a disadvantage.
Three in 10 Democratic voters think that most of the electorate would be less likely to vote for a female candidate because of her gender, compared to just 4% who think a male candidate would face a similar disadvantage. Similarly, 28% think a nonwhite candidate would face more difficulty with voters.
There’s also concern about age: 35% say they suspect the electorate would penalize a candidate over age 70, a group that, by Election Day, will include Sanders, Biden and Warren. (Trump will be 74.)
“Electability feels like a real dog whistle for maintaining the status quo and putting the mainstream candidate to the front,” said Evan Hanlon, 32, a New York City voter who attended a fundraiser for Buttigieg this month. “If ‘electability’ is really just a code word for ‘Joe Biden,’ then I really don’t have much use for the concept.”
Although the sample sizes for subgroups are small, there appear to be modest intraparty differences. Democratic women are 10 points likelier than their male counterparts to suspect that a male candidate’s gender would give him an edge in electability; white voters, however, are 10 points likelier than nonwhite voters in the party to think a racial minority would fare worse.
“Unfortunately, I don’t really believe that a woman can win the general presidential election. Hillary sort of proved that for me. She was so qualified, but people didn’t like her,” said Chloe Levin, a 19-year-old engineering student at Stanford University who is registered to vote in her home state of New York.
While Levin identifies as a feminist, she said she feels resigned to supporting a male candidate: “My rights are better safeguarded by someone who can beat Trump even if that is a male candidate, and I think a male candidate is more likely to beat Trump.”
These types of assumptions, which are baked into the electorate and sometimes reinforced by pundits, infuriate supporters of the female candidates and the candidates of color.
There’s a consensus that Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida are the key states on the electoral map. And there’s only one demographic group key to Democratic hopes in all four of these states: black voters. It was low turnout in Detroit, which is 82% black, that ultimately doomed Clinton’s campaign in Michigan ― not her failure to hold on to white working-class voters.
So as progressives and moderates bicker over whether Biden or Sanders or Buttigieg is better positioned to win back white working-class voters, voters of color are regularly left out of the electability conversation.
“As a black woman, I’m deeply offended,” said Yvette Simpson, the president of the progressive group Democracy for America. “Who are these people who get to determine this? And what are their backgrounds and what is their lens? I think for a long, long time people have convinced themselves and others that in order to win in certain places or to win at all you have to be a white guy, and the reality is that can’t be further from the truth.”
Mistaken Electability Bets
Right now, Democratic voters see Biden as the most electable. And Biden’s team sees it that way too. The New York Times reported in January that the former vice president “has told allies he is skeptical the other Democrats eyeing the White House can defeat President Trump” and win back the critical states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But this isn’t the first time the party consensus has assumed a member of the establishment was best positioned to win back white voters who had fled the party in recent years ― an assumption that has often been wrong.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, for instance, endorsed Hillary Clinton in August 2015, arguing she was best-positioned to win back his home state for Democrats.
Clinton lost every county in the state to Trump, winning 26% of the statewide vote. It was the worst-ever performance by a Democrat in West Virginia.
The assumption that Clinton could win, while Sanders could not, was part of what drove the party’s elected officials ― who will play a much smaller role in the 2020 nomination ― to overwhelmingly back her, even as polling began to show Sanders performing slightly better against Trump than Clinton did.
Biden backers argue his electability comes from both his own popularity with white working-class voters ― which remains untested ― and his link to Obama, which they say would provide a boost with black voters. (Hence why Biden referred to himself as an “Obama-Biden Democrat” when talking to reporters earlier this month.)
But progressives argue that theory ignores Biden’s own weaknesses with the Democratic base. Sean McElwee, the ubiquitous Twitter pundit who runs the left-wing Data for Progress, wrote a memo last week trying to debunk the idea of Biden’s electability, citing polling showing statements about Biden’s record ― ranging from his support for a law that made it harder for families to file for bankruptcy to his vote in favor of the Iraq War ― would discourage women, millennials and people of color from voting for him.
Sanders, this time around, is making a more proactive case for his electability. Compared to the other candidates, the Vermont senator’s campaign is more actively targeting Trump and the key general election swing states. Ahead of a swing through the Midwest over the weekend, Sanders’ team released a memo to reporters outlining his strengths in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
And other steps Sanders has taken ― including attacking Trump on trade and even appearing on Fox News ― show an early focus on winning in November 2020 instead of on the winter and spring.
Ben Tulchin, the pollster Sanders somewhat reluctantly hired in 2016 and who now works for his 2020 bid, pointed to three groups Sanders excels with as evidence of his electability: millennials, independents and older men. Increasing turnout among the first group is key to Democratic victories everywhere, while winning over the latter two groups will be necessary to win back previously blue states that went for Trump in 2016.
“The thing about Bernie is his appeal is based on economic messaging, and he’s able to break the mold. He’s able to appeal to working-class voters in a way a conventional Democrat cannot,” Tulchin said. “I’m not saying we’re going to win 48 states here. But Bernie does provide a lot of unique offerings as a candidate.”
Sanders supporters, at their most optimistic, will talk about winning back deep-red states with heavy amounts of white voters. Tulchin said he’s conducted polls showing Sanders performing well against in Trump in red states like Kansas and West Virginia, but repeatedly returned to the candidate’s strength in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as why he’d be the best choice to battle Trump.
Of course, not every theory of the “Bernie Would Have Won” crowd totally adds up either. Not a single candidate endorsed by Justice Democrats or Our Revolution, left-leaning groups backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Sanders, flipped a GOP-held House district in 2018. A number of left-wing candidates who raised large sums and generated progressive excitement to run in deep-red areas ended up losing by double-digit margins.
And despite the excitement generated by leftist winners like freshman Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), establishment Democrats dominated most contested House primaries.
History is littered with failed candidates who were supposed to be electable: Clinton, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney to name just a few. And then there’s the man currently in the White House, who wasn’t supposed to ever have a shot.
Ariel Edwards-Levy, Daniel Marans and Maxwell Strachan contributed to this report.
Correction: This piece originally referred to DFA president Yvette Simpson as Yvette Alexander.