The Electability Conundrum

I am not a political scientist. I thought I wanted to be one once, way back when I entered college as an 18 year-old kid with a couple scholarships and all the expectations in the world. My undergraduate debacle might make an interesting story sometime. Suffice it to say, for now, that by the time I took the second class in my chosen major, it appeared to be nothing like what I’d hoped or imagined, and that was the end of my formal political science education.

Everything else I know about politics has been picked up from a lifetime of informal, if not always casual, observation. I’ve participated, volunteered, and served as a party officer. I’ve been to caucuses and conventions. I’ve heard more stump speeches than I could count. I drifted from youthful idealism and liberalism into a stodgy, self-righteous conservatism, and was jolted back to my roots by divorce, a major falling out with fundamentalism, and George W. Bush’s woefully misguided or outright fraudulent adventure in Iraq.

In 2004 I waited in a long line and voted for John Kerry, but it was all for nothing; Kerry had been “swift-boated.”

This Land 2004
Remember this one?

By the time 2008 rolled around, I was ready to get behind a Democrat — virtually any Democrat — to retake the White House. At the beginning of 2008, Hillary Clinton seemed like the best bet. I wasn’t excited about Hillary, it just seemed like she was, what’s the word? Inevitable.

And then Iowa happened.

I will never forget it. I was in my kitchen in Colorado when Obama delivered his victory speech after winning the Iowa caucuses. That speech turned my head toward the TV in the living room:

“[Y]ou’ll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began. This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.”

There was that word again. And Obama’s win over both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton proved that nothing was inevitable but that someone would win the nomination. I started donating online and working to support the candidate I wanted to win, not necessarily the one people expected to win.

Obama 20080130 21 crop.jpg
Barack Obama and Caroline Kennedy in Denver, six days ahead of Super Tuesday 2008

There’s a lot of talk about electability in 2020, as a casual web search will quickly reveal. In a March 14th article in Rolling Stone entitled “Beto, Biden, and the Electability Trap,” Bob Moser makes some of the same points I had in mind when I started writing this. Moser observes:

When parties tap the candidates who engage and enthuse them the most, both in terms of style and substance, they elect presidents. When they pay heed to the nattering nabobs of electability, and go with perceptions of “who’s most likely to win,” they lose.

The March 15th Washington Post included an opinion piece by Kathleen Parker in which she dismissed Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 campaign as a “youthful folly.” Pete Buttigieg, who was not mentioned in the column, is even younger than Beto O’Rourke. Buttigieg is 37; O’Rourke is 46.

I commented online about Parker’s column that I didn’t want another celebrity president and continued: “Youth is fine, preferred even, but I want somebody who presents as steady and substantive, as well as positive. Buttigieg is the rising star at the moment.”

A stranger answered “The South would never vote for an openly gay man. Is it fair? No. And it sucks. But it’s the truth.”

Again, I’m no political scientist, but isn’t what we call electability really just a set of assumptions about what other people are going to do?

Have we always been this passive? This uninvolved?

We live in a time when the Internet and social media* allow people to perceive themselves as influential. Some people are even paid as “influencers.” But are we really making a difference that way? Clicking “Like” is about the most low-energy form of voting ever devised — it requires nearly no effort at all. The people who get something out of it are a) the person who just got a little dopamine hit of social validation and b) the media company collecting the data, typically Facebook or Twitter.

I have friends, which is to say actual people I know and like, whom I cannot stand to be around online. Why? Because they’re usually ranting about the behavior of others, as I am doing right now. Such posts, tweets, etc., seldom get much of a response. In fact, I know people who have a thousand or more Twitter followers who might get only a few “Likes” in response to a post about what others are doing/should do/should stop doing.

Are we really influencing others this way?

Yes, electability matters. Having a great potential president doesn’t do anybody much good if they can’t get elected. Neither does it do anybody any good to elect somebody who was a great candidate but a crappy president. We need both.

I haven’t settled on a candidate yet and I’m not inclined to take a lot of shots at the Democrats who are running or might run.**

I live in Iowa, and I’ll be supporting somebody in the not too distant future. The candidate I get behind will be the one I want to win, the one I think would make the best president. I won’t be excluding somebody because I think people won’t support a black man, or an intellectual woman or a young, gay mayor. Stay tuned.


*Twitter is the only social media platform I currently use, and I’ve only recently established a presence there. I’m still figuring out how best to use it. Look for me here: @mstuartwright.

**See Why Bernie should not be the nominee and Joe should not run if you want my take on that.

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