Senator Kamala Harris was supposed to be a frontrunner. According to the rules of “the invisible primary,” in which donors and party activists coalesce around their chosen nominees, sending signals about candidate quality that primary voters, more often that not, eventually validate, Harris seemed to check all the boxes of a frontrunner. Her campaign team is full of veterans of the campaign of the last Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. She led the large donor fundraising race, with most of her big donors also being former donors to Clinton. Seth Masket, a political scientist and expert on the party system, conducted an informal poll last December of precisely the sort of party activists who are said to decide these things, and a healthy majority leaned toward supporting Harris. And in FiveThirtyEight’s weighted listing of endorsements, Harris ranked second among the declared candidates, losing out only to Senator Cory Booker (before Joe Biden formally entered the race last week).
Judging by all available polling, though, Harris is not even close to the frontrunner. (And Cory Booker’s campaign seems to be utterly foundering, suggesting that counting up endorsements may not be the best way to measure the viability of a candidate from a state, like New Jersey, with a powerful, old-fashioned party machine.) Most national polls put her in a distant third or fourth place, frequently trailing South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a relative neophyte who was polling at basically zero a month ago.
This doesn’t render “the invisible primary” obsolete as an explanatory factor. The seemingly overnight rise of Buttigieg is in fact evidence of the concept’s durability: People have heard of him, and tell pollsters they support him, because his press is managed by Lis Smith, a well-connected Democratic operative who formerly worked for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, and Politico’s big donor analysis shows he is extremely popular among former Obama and Clinton bundlers. The energy around Mayor Pete is partly a reflection of the political press translating its knowledge of his advisers’ records and his popularity with the donor class into stories about his candidacy that create a sort of aura of “viability.” The new frontrunner, the former vice president, has, as you’d expect, even more institutional support behind him, especially among Democratic mega-donors and longtime elected officials.
So, what has, thus far (there is a lot of election left to go), prevented Harris’s campaign from breaking out? And for that matter, how is Elizabeth Warren receiving so much glowing press for her transformative policy agenda, but still polling just as poorly as Harris?
As the horserace quants at FiveThirtyEight explained, both are victims of the Democratic electorate’s fixation on “electability.” Polling broadly shows Democratic voters thinking Joe Biden has the best chance at winning the general election. That is exactly what Biden would like everyone to think, and that belief practically constitutes the sole argument for his candidacy.
Interestingly, the other beneficiary of the “electability” frame, for now, seems to be independent senator and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. This is a very funny development. In 2016, Sanders was clearly and proudly the candidate for Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers who rejected the emphasis on “electability.” As Dave Weigel observed, 2016 exit polling showed Sanders’s Michigan primary victory happened because the majority of primary voters there ranked “honest and trustworthy” over “could win in November.”
“Electability” is a crock of shit. It is defined, like political “moderation,” only in terms of opposition to things people want, but are told they can’t have, ranging from antiwar politics to left-wing economic populism to even the “cultural liberalism” that is seemingly the cornerstone of the modern Democratic Party. (Back in 2004, supporting civil unions, not even marriage, for same-sex couples was a threat to a Democrat’s perceived “electability.”) While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for. That was supposed to be, as the political scientist Masket says, the main lesson of Trump’s election.
But Democratic voters did not teach themselves to prioritize electability over their own actual concerns. They were trained to, over many years, by party figures who over-interpreted the loss of George McGovern, or who wanted to use the fear of McGovern to maintain their power over the Democratic candidate pipeline and nomination process. “Electability” is a way to get voters to carry out a contrary agenda—not their own—while convincing them they’re being “responsible.”
And now Democratic candidates and their most loyal voters are stuck in an absurd feedback loop. The politicians campaign and govern as if they themselves don’t believe a majority of voters prefer their agenda, signaling to their most loyal voters that they must vote not for what they want, but for what they imagine their more-conservative neighbors might want. But when voters in 2016 did exactly that, and nominated the candidate they were repeatedly told was most qualified to defeat Trump in the general election, they chose a person who went on to lose to him.
How are committed, pragmatic voters supposed to react when the person sold to them as not just the most “electable” person in this particular race, but among the most “electable” people in recent political history, loses a freak election to a preening, venal huckster who was treated as a great big joke for almost the entirety of the campaign?
If “electability” previously meant “the candidate most associated with the hawkish and business-friendly wing of the party,” it now seems to have become purely and nakedly demographic. Former Clinton voters are flocking to the various white men in the race, avoiding candidates they actually might like, because they see their own affinity for those candidates as a political liability.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a populist liberal PAC, polled its own members, asking why they supported their candidates of choice, and found basically an inverse relationship between which candidate’s supporters thought their pick would make the “best president” (Warren by a landslide) and which ones were motivated by their belief that their candidate is the most “electable” (Biden). As PCCC co-founder Adam Green put it: “Barely a majority of Biden’s own current supporters believe he would be the best Democratic president.”
Because of the way the “electability” question was framed in 2016, and the way it then backfired, it looks very much like the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file took from that election the lesson that “a smart and capable woman isn’t electable,” not that “an establishment fixture with a tremendous amount of political baggage who is also easily and convincingly portrayed as corrupt isn’t electable.” I’m guessing many of the people who worked very hard to elect Hillary Clinton president would like to see Warren win the Democratic nomination rather than Biden, but decades of party brass (aided by a political press that spends every single election cycle talking about the electorate like it’s still Nixon’s Silent Majority) leaning on “electability” arguments to kneecap outsider candidates is currently working against that outcome.
It is still easy to imagine the sort of Democrat who’d be happy to use the “electability” argument against a candidate like Warren. But when even someone like Harris—a member in good standing of the party establishment, a dedicated player of the “electability” game her entire career, a person whose campaign strategy from the outset seemed to be to rerun the Clinton campaign but without the Clinton baggage—struggles to gain traction with Democratic voters, it feels like the monster has turned on its creators.
Watching Joe Biden, a man who was already too out-of-step with the party and the country to win the nomination 12 years ago, claim the “electability” mantle only strengthens that feeling. No one really wants President Biden. It’s just that the “better things aren’t possible” caucus accidentally managed to convince some large portion of the Democratic electorate that they must hold their noses and vote for actively worse things.
Expecting voters to behave like pundits—asking people to vote for what expensive consultants and Sunday show guests imagine people like them might want instead of what they actually want—would be perverse even if it worked. But unless and until the Democratic electorate can be given license to support what it supports, each failure of the “electability” paradigm will only be taken as proof of the need to retreat further into learned helplessness.
If you’re not that excited to vote for Joe Biden, I promise you, your neighbor isn’t, either.