The Democrats’ electability trap

Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg speaks during the "Mike for Black America Launch Celebration" at the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston.
Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg speaks during the "Mike for Black America Launch Celebration" at the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston.MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg is 78 years old. In 2004, he spoke at the Republican National Convention on behalf of George W. Bush’s reelection. He’s given millions of dollars to Republican candidates across the country. As Mayor of New York his stop and frisk policy disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities, which are among the most powerful constituencies in the modern Democratic Party. Having already spent more than $300 million of his more than $60 billion fortune, he is in effect seeking to buy the presidency.

He also has the distinct possibility of being the Democrats’ presidential standard bearer in November.

His recent surge in the polls has something to do with all those millions he is spending. But just as influential is the narrative of electability that is so fundamentally distorting the Democratic race, and turning voters into pundits.


For nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters in New Hampshire, picking a candidate who can defeat Trump was more important than choosing one who matched their views on the issues. National polls have found a similar phenomenon.

Anecdotally, when you talk to voters, ridding the country of Trump — and finding a potential nominee for whom other people will vote — is often front and center. How will the Democratic nominee play in the Upper Midwest? Can she or he win over white working-class voters? In an era of omnipresent media coverage of the 2020 horse race, every voter has become a political analyst — speaking in the vernacular of their favorite MSNBC or CNN talking head.

Surely, there are Democrats who like Bloomberg on the issues. They appreciate his advocacy on gun control and climate change, or they think his managerial experience as New York City mayor and as a business tycoon would serve him well in the Oval Office. His willingness to spend hundreds of millions s not necessarily seen as evidence that money has fundamentally corrupted our political system, but rather a positive chit in Bloomberg’s favor.


But there’s no doubt that his perceived ability to win in November has been crucial to his rise. According to a new Morning Consult poll, a quarter of voters see Bloomberg as the candidate most likely to get elected next November — placing him only four points behind Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

In this election cycle, electability has been both a bane and boom for Democratic candidates.

Elizabeth Warren has consistently been dogged by the concerns among Democratic voters whether a woman can be elected president — and it arguably has undercut her candidacy.

Name recognition and his links to former President Barack Obama spurred Joe Biden’s rise to the top of the polls. It also helped that he is also an older, moderate white guy who is seen as the kind of candidate who can appeal to diner-dwelling, baseball cap wearing, working-class voters in the Upper Midwest.

Not surprisingly, the decline in Biden’s political fortunes coincided with Bloomberg’s rise in the polls. Voters unimpressed with Biden’s unimpressive campaign could switch from one older, moderate, white politician to another.

In New Hampshire, exit polls show that no candidate was viewed as more electable than the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, even though head-to-head national polling shows that he performs worse against President Trump than his Democratic rivals.


Amy Klobuchar is an even more extreme example of the electability conundrum. She has no notable policy issue that she is running on and no major policy accomplishment to her name. The rationale for her candidacy boils downs to the line she used at the outset of her “victory” speech in New Hampshire, “I’m Amy Klobuchar and I will beat Donald Trump.” That was enough, it seems, to give her a third-place finish in the nation’s first primary.

It’s hard to blame Democratic voters for making electability their political lodestar. Trump is an ongoing threat to the nation’s democratic ideals.

But electability is an attribute often found in the eye of the beholder.

Sanders, a self-defined socialist who had a heart attack last fall and still won’t release his medical records, is perhaps the most vulnerable of all the Democratic candidates to Republican attacks. We have troves of political science data that suggests political candidates who do best are the ones perceived as hewing more closely to the political center, rather than to the ideological extremes — which is one of the reasons Donald Trump prevailed in 2016.

Yet, Sanders’ partisan supporters are buying his oft-stated claim that he can mobilize new voters and broaden the Democratic coalition, even though it didn’t happen in New Hampshire or Iowa.

Sanders supporters wouldn’t be the first group of voters to convince themselves that what they want to be true actually is. In reality, his current front-runner status is being driven, in part, by the inability of more moderate Democratic voters to rally around an “electable” candidate. They are instead splitting their votes among those who they think have the best shot.


Many pundits will argue that voters should choose the best candidate and not obsess over electability. I don’t necessarily agree. It can’t be the only criterion but it shouldn’t be ignored either. The problem is that few of us are well-equipped to make the right decision. Bloomberg or to some, Sanders, might look electable now, but a lot can happen in the eight months until Election Day.

Just because one prioritizes electability doesn’t mean he or she is going to get it right. The result is perhaps the greatest irony in the Democratic race today: an electorate laser focused on defeating Trump may end up choosing a nominee least equipped to beat him.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.