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Perspective | Magazine

The new rules of ‘electability’ mean Joe Biden can’t win. Guess who can?

Democratic primary voters are too focused on appealing to fictional centrists or Midwest swing voters. But appealing to the middle fails.

Joe Biden, left, and Senator Elizabeth Warren during a Democratic presidential primary debate September 12.David J. Phillip/associated press/Associated Press

The Ukraine/whistle-blower scandal has been releasing revelations about President Trump’s actions like candy from a piñata. As a result, it’s hard to predict whether he, Vice President Mike Pence, or someone else will be the Republican nominee for president in 2020. Whoever it is, Democrats are so scared of losing again that “electability” doesn’t just top the shopping list of desired qualities for their nominee, it’s the only item on the list.

So who is “electable”? A tall white guy with a strong handshake and a lifetime in public service, according to conventional wisdom — and the Biden campaign.

But that’s exactly backward, a misinterpretation of the 2016 election. Back then, many Democrats, women especially, were excited about having a chance to vote for the first woman nominated for president by a major party. When she lost, they concluded it was because Midwestern white guys in pickup trucks didn’t want a female boss. (Apparently, the 47 percent of white women who also voted for Trump didn’t, either.) But Hillary Clinton didn’t lose because — or not mainly because — she was a woman. She also lost because she was the safe, middle-of-the-road, establishment candidate — a highly-qualified but boring standard-bearer for her party. She joined a long line of other such candidates, including Mitt Romney, John Kerry, and Al Gore.

Joe Biden fits that lineup: the “good-enough” candidate who isn’t. Democrats loved Clinton while she was secretary of state, looking cool and getting things done. They loved Uncle Joe when he was the president’s comic-relief sidekick, chosen to reassure white guys that they still belonged in the party. But like Hillary Clinton, he represents insider clubbiness and more-of-the-same policies. There’s a reason he hasn’t won the nomination before, and won’t this time, and it’s not just because of his running gaffe track or that he’s alienated so many core Democratic constituencies: It’s that not enough voters get really enthusiastic about him, personally.


So what does “electable” really mean?


Think back to the first moment you heard of Barack Hussein Obama. Anyone who evaluated his “electability” by today’s standards would have rejected him as too black, too inexperienced, and bearing a too-Muslim middle name for post-9/11 voters. But he had “it” — that outsider charisma that thrilled his followers and attracted more. He beat presumptive nominee Clinton in the primaries and then all-American John McCain, establishment military hero. Four years later, Obama beat Romney, tall and as white as you can get.

Yes, Republicans hated Obama. And yes, Trump is the backlash, the nation’s racist and sexist id incarnate.

Trump is Obama’s opposite, but he’s also like Obama in being an outsider candidate who explodes conventional expectations. His reality-TV persona rocked the debate stage with a blustering pugilism no one expected in politics, beating up all the safe Republicans. When Clinton spoke on TV, even her supporters fell asleep. Trump got hearts beating as fast as fake news on Facebook. And that sells.

Some Obama voters defected to Trump rather than vote for Clinton. But a close look at the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study reveals that a larger slice either stayed home or voted for a third party. Those Obama-to-Trump voters aren’t coming back, argues Michael Tesler, author of two books on recent presidential elections — they’re too enthusiastic about Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially tainted politics. Black voter turnout plunged in key states Michigan and Wisconsin, compared with their showing for Obama. To win, the Democratic nominee will have to excite those Obama-to-nonvoters, disproportionately young people of color, enough to get them to the polls. Yes, for now older black voters support Biden — but the University of Chicago’s GenForward study found only 18 percent of young black voters do. And only 7 percent of Biden’s supporters are under 30, according to the Pew Research Center.


Too many Democratic primary voters are worried not about who they want, but about who will appeal to those other middle-of-the-road voters, those fictional independents or centrists or Midwest swing voters. But appealing to the middle fails — because American voters, like so many around the world, have polarized dramatically. We’re no longer huddled in the center, watching the same three network TV channels for a shared view of reality. Today’s passionate partisans cheer their team’s righteous vision, often echoing cable news. No presidential nominee can win without thrilling the base enough to get them to drag everyone they know to the polls. Exciting sometimes-voters is more effective than trying to win back defectors. And sometimes-voters are moved not by policy but by likability.

For inspiring enthusiasm, my bet is on Senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s been brilliantly connecting her family story with everyone’s bread-and-butter concerns since she ran against incumbent Scott Brown in 2012. While covering Warren for The Nation, I saw ordinary party activists who just adored her — with the same excitement visible in her now-famous selfie lines. She fills you with hope and makes you believe in a better America, as Obama did, and stays on message like a cruise missile. She’s a bureaucratic street fighter who created a consumer protection agency despite fierce opposition. Yes, she lists left — but not as much as Trump lists right, and she’s working to win over her party’s moderates. Misogynists won’t vote for her — but did you think they would abandon Trump? Warren’s rising steadily in the polls in early primary states and against Trump nationally.


Safe candidates lose. Passionate crusaders win. When you write your checks or vote in your primary, go with your gut.

E.J. Graff, a journalist and author, is the managing editor of The Monkey Cage The Washington Post. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.