Democrats' Obsession with Electability is a Feature of Weak Parties and Strong Partisanship
At this point in the 2020 nomination cycle (by my estimate we are about 5,000 years in), we know a few things about electability. First, this is what Democratic voters are concerned about. Second, there are some well-reasoned arguments that electability tends to be code for “white men,” who constitute the vast majority of people who have both won and lost the presidency. Third, a Discourse ™ has bubbled up around whether electability is a good and worthwhile consideration. I want to pile onto this discourse by pointing out that all the fuss about electability provides us a window into the nature of weak parties and strong partisanship on the Democratic side, including why the status quo – deep polarization alongside diffuse, delegitimized parties - may prove unsustainable.
Democratic voters want to beat Donald Trump in 2020. As soon as I post this, I will probably get emails telling me that the reason electability is so important is because Trump is a unique threat, negligent of norms, ignorant of policy, and in bed with Russia. But the reality is that his approval among Republicans remains quite high, while it’s in the single digits among Democrats – and this has been true throughout his presidency. According to Gallup, Trump has generally been more popular among Republicans than Obama was, on average, among Democrats. This level of partisanship in approval ratings means that Trump’s approval has been remarkably stable and unresponsive to events and shifts in the political environment (well, mostly).
It also means that it’s probably true that people who disapprove of Trump are no longer identifying as Republicans – so while partisanship is strong, we shouldn’t assume that it is fixed. Still, the lesson for electability remains: Democrats dislike Trump, want him gone, and would prefer any Democrat to him – there’s probably not much he can do to change that. As a result, it’s likely that electability will remain a top priority.
In turn, this preoccupation with electability – the singular focus on getting Trump out of office – has become the lens through which Democrats view intra-party disputes. Differences on ideology, policy, the relative power of identity groups and issue priorities all now have taken on, at the very least, electability implications. And electability makes for a clear criterion by which conflicting groups within the party might come to temporary agreement, without addressing the deeper issues head-on. In other words, electability is the perfect concept for a multi-faceted, diverse party that distrusts its own processes for resolving internal disputes.
But if the most important thing to most Democratic voters really is defeating Trump – not shaping the direction of their own party – then the existing nomination system is a profound mismatch. As this Atlantic article illustrates, primary voters are left making guesses about what others in their position throughout the country might be thinking. Some of the formal and informal processes we have in place – the “invisible” primaries of endorsements and fundraising, the intense retail politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire – are useful for determining which candidates belong in the top-tier, but not particularly great at distinguishing among top-tier, presidential caliber politicians. Are early contests especially indicative of what will matter in the general election, especially in critical states or among crucial groups of voters? Maybe? It’s hard to say, although it’s difficult to make the argument that either Iowa or New Hampshire are particularly representative of the Democratic electorate. Who might be better poised to make predictions about what voters in Wisconsin and Ohio want than politicians from those states, maybe ones who serve at the state and local level, from different parts of the states? Maybe these sorts of leaders could provide insight about rural concerns or which candidates might be able to inspire higher African-American turnout? Coordination among accountable, responsive party leaders – not “elites” – would be much better way for a party to work through the specific questions of how to select a nominee who will succeed with key constituencies.
There are three main implications here. First, after 2016, there were some questions about whether the idea of weak parties and strong partisanship applied to Democrats even as it seemed to explain what happened that year with the Republicans. But the field in 2020 suggests that Democrats are dealing with some of the same issues of coordination, are also deeply and angrily partisan, and similarly lack the mechanisms to deal with intra-party disagreement.
Second, electability and its connection to the traditional, informal primary process are rooted in some of the same outdated notions of how presidential elections work. Fierce partisan polarization means that it doesn’t really make sense to focus on nominating a candidate with the most congenial campaign personality or the views most oriented toward the median voter or. Parties want nominees who can get core constituencies, as well as swing voters, to the polls.
Finally, this illustrates the ways in which different aspects of partisanship and party strength are in tension. Strong partisanship hasn’t strengthened party organizations, and the kind of coordination leverage that would help the Democrats face the challenges of 2020 is at odds with expectations that the party will become increasingly open and democratic. As Hans Noel pointed out last week on this site, the Democrats don’t seem to have as profound a problem with gatekeeping as the Republicans had in 2016. But that’s not the only problem that a weak party can face.