Electability Takes Center Stage As Democratic Candidates Try To Close The Deal In Iowa

Most of the leading Democratic candidates are making their closing arguments in Iowa about Donald Trump.

One week out from the Iowa caucuses, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants voters to know one thing: She’s as electable as they come. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is hoping voters go to their caucuses thinking the same thing about him. Joe Biden too.

After nearly a year of campaigning and debating differences in their platforms, most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are making their final messages, as seen through their television ads, about President Donald Trump. Specifically, that they are best positioned to beat him.

Warren’s campaign, once defined almost exclusively by its policy plans, released two ads Monday, one featuring her extended family, mostly Republicans, saying they’ll vote for her. The second resembled a general election ad; shot after shot showed Warren in direct contrast to Trump. The ad’s title: “Why She Will Beat Him.”

“I’m Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message because I’m going to beat him,” Warren says in another TV ad her campaign released last week, titled “Trump Is Nervous.” By Monday morning, the campaign had spent more than $213,000 on the ad, airing it more than 940 times over seven days in all the major Iowa media markets.

The opening line of one of Buttigieg’s final TV pushes in Iowa was a testimonial from state Sen. Bill Dotzler: “He has the greatest chance of defeating Donald Trump.”

Biden’s campaign released an ad that made no mention of policy at all, and instead included head-to-head polls that showed the former vice president beating Trump in swing states.

“This is no time to take a risk,” the female narrator said in the Biden ad. “We need our strongest candidate. So let’s nominate the Democrat Trump fears the most. Vote Biden. Beat Trump.”

There are some exceptions in the field. Most notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has made a splash in Iowa in the final weeks, isn’t making electability his final rallying cry in the days ahead of the caucuses. Sanders is polling 3 percentage points ahead of the Democratic field in Iowa, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average in the final week of January.

While his campaign is quick to point out that Sanders does well against Trump in general election polls, Sanders’ two television ads in Iowa leading to the caucuses weren’t about Trump. One focused solely on his signature policy proposal, “Medicare for All,” a universal government-run health insurance program. Another ad highlighted his vision for a political revolution.

“Look around you and find someone you don’t know, maybe somebody who doesn’t look kind of like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” you can hear Sanders saying in the ad — a recording of a speech he gave at a major campaign rally in Queens, New York, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The 30-second spot highlights his supporters at town hall events and campaign organizing efforts.

“If you and millions of others are willing to do that, not only will we win this election, but together we will transform this country,” the ad ends, with the sounds of cheering crowds.

Sanders has long argued that his progressive policy platform — and his call for a mass movement of people to rally behind it — is the answer to voters’ electability concerns. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) who came in third behind Sanders and Biden in a recent Emerson College poll of Iowa Democrats, highlighted a similar message, focusing on her plan for the first 100 days in office in her new TV ad.

But the rest of the field is being much more explicit.

There’s some reason for that. When polled, Iowans have consistently highlighted a candidate’s ability to beat Trump as one of their top priorities in picking a candidate. In a late-January Suffolk University poll of Iowa voters, “defeating Donald Trump” was the biggest priority for voters (39% of surveyed Americans said it was the most important issue for them), followed by health care.

Every candidate in the Democratic presidential race has undergone this “electability” scrutiny. David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, tried to raise electability concerns about Sanders in The Atlantic this week, writing, “Bernie Sanders is a fragile candidate. He has never fought a race in which he had to face serious personal scrutiny.” The sentiment was circulated by a number of anti-Trump Republicans, who are undoubtedly spooked by Sanders’ unabashedly left-wing agenda. When Warren was asked if she was electable, she pointed out that Obama and Trump were both asked the same question, remarking on misplaced skepticism.

Warren and Klobuchar have pointed to their strong track record winning elections. Biden has focused on electability from the beginning, making Trump, and his belief that he can beat the president, the centerpiece of his campaign.

Of course, only one thing makes a candidate electable: if they actually win.