Democrats want an electable nominee. But what does that really mean in 2020?

Democrats largely agree on the No. 1 trait they want in their 2020 Democratic presidential nominee — electability. Where they disagree, however, is on what that actually means.
Democrats largely agree on the No. 1 trait they want in their 2020 Democratic presidential nominee — electability. Where they disagree, however, is on what that actually means. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

Democrats largely agree on the No. 1 trait they want in their 2020 Democratic presidential nominee — electability. Where they disagree, however, is on what that actually means.

Launching his campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, former vice president Joe Biden argued his path to victory runs through Western Pennsylvania. In Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, asserted that “virtually every poll that’s ever been done” shows he can beat Trump. And last weekend, Senator Kamala Harris noted in Detroit that “pundits” who talk about “electability” in the Midwest often leave out a key bloc — the urban black population.


Even in the early weeks of the race for the nomination, Democratic candidates have honed their individual pitches to voters on why they alone — and not the other 20-plus candidates in contention — are the best option to defeat President Trump.

After all, surveys show it’s a key issue for party members: 68 percent of likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said they prefer to have a nominee with a better chance of defeating Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues, a Monmouth University poll released Thursday found. Nationally, a Washington Post/ABC news poll last week found that 48 percent of self-identified liberals said they preferred a candidate who appeals to independents — underscoring the importance of victory to the party’s left wing.

But in the wake of the party’s stunning loss to Trump, followed by Democratic gains in the House last year, there’s not much consensus on what, if anything, a winning coalition will look like for the party in 2020.

“Electability is the term every Democrat says they want in their nominee for president,” Democratic strategist Michael Meehan said. “And this year every candidate appears to have a different answer that uniquely applies to them.”


These days, even rank-and-file activists know the Electoral College math: If the nominee wins the same states Hillary Clinton won and takes back prior strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Democrats win the White House. Trump won those three Rust Belt states collectively by less than 78,000 votes.

To Harris’s point, one study found that black turnout in the 2016 election was down by 12 points in Wisconsin and Michigan compared with the previous election. In Wisconsin — where Clinton lost to Trump by 22,000 votes and Green Party candidate Jill Stein received 31,000 votes — Sanders’ supporters have suggested that wouldn’t have happened if he was the Democratic nominee. And Biden isn’t wrong that working-class voters — particularly members of trade unions — went Republican in numbers not seen since 1984.

But more often than not, candidates make their case for electability by conveniently citing their unique backgrounds.

Senator Amy Klobuchar recently boasted to a New Hampshire crowd that she bested her Republican challenger for reelection in the most conservative area of the state. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York offered her own take on Twitter this week by noting, “In 2018, I flipped 18 Trump counties in NY,” referring to her reelection last year in a deep blue state.

There’s also a group of candidates from more traditional red states who say their victories have proven their crossover appeal, like former representative Beto O’Rourke and former HUD secretary and congressman Julián Castro. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., touts his reelection in a moderate city in a deeply Republican state after coming out as gay.


But the traditional rules of electability are quickly changing, notes Robert McCann, a Democratic strategist in Michigan who advised Governor Gretchen Whitmer, one of a slew of women elected last year.

“When Democrats traditionally talked about electability in Michigan, it meant you were the older white man with labor backing,” he said. “Being electable in 2018 was Democrats picking all women for all four statewide offices. All four won.”

But no presidential candidate appears to suffer more from the electability question than Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Indeed, in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, New Hampshire primary voters said the No. 1 reason why they would vote for someone else besides Warren is that they didn’t think she could win.

And, when asked at a recent town hall what she would do to avoid being “Hillary’d,” Warren said that she defeated Republican Scott Brown in the 2012 Senate race. She noted that Brown beat a similarly aged Democratic woman just two years earlier.

“The biggest challenge for everyone, more than any other individual candidate, are the Pundit Voters. People who try to read minds and say, ‘I personally would love a woman president or bold transformational ideas. But I just don’t know if white male swing voters in Ohio are ready for that, and we can’t take any chances,’ ” said Adam Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that has endorsed Warren.


However, this eye toward electability might only further grow as Trump’s job approval rating ticks up. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had Trump at a 46 percent approval rating, up 3 points from March. Notably, the poll was completed before it was announced that the national unemployment rate dropped to 3.6 percent, the lowest number in nearly a half century.

Then, again, history provides a strong retort for Democrats so concerned with electability, even if they see Trump as an existential threat to American democracy.

Speaking about Ronald Reagan in 1980, former president Gerald Ford, a Republican, said “a very conservative Republican can’t win in a national election.” During a 1992 debate, then-Governor of California Jerry Brown pointed to Bill Clinton and said, “I think he’s got a big electability problem.” In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s pollster claimed that “Senator Obama really can’t win the general election.”

And then there’s Trump. In May 2015, a Quinnipiac poll found him by far the least likely person to become president. When the poll pitted him against Hillary Clinton in a then-hypothetical match-up, Trump trailed her by 18 points — the largest margin of any of the top candidates in the field.

Of course, Reagan, Ford, Bill Clinton, Obama, and Trump went on to win. Conversely, when parties nominated the perceived more-electable candidate, whether it was John Kerry in 2004 or Mitt Romney in 2012, that person lost.


“This is so theoretical, but it is interesting to see the debate play out in new ways,” Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus said. “The only way to prove you are electable is to actually win.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp