Defining Electability: How Do the Top Democratic Candidates Stack Up?

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

by Randy Clopton

Electability. This word has hung over the heads of the more progressive candidates for this entire election cycle, as well as the 2016 elections. However, the word carries a different weight in 2020 than it did in 2016, where it was largely expected that the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton was the most electable. The simplest version of “electability” in 2020 can be reduced to one question: can this candidate beat Donald Trump in the general election? Nevertheless, electability certainly means more to many than simply beating Trump, and there doesn’t seem to be a commonly agreed upon definition of the word.

So what does “electability” really mean? Let’s start off with a simple criterion: ability to perform well in the primaries. This criterion not only helps us define the term, but also pares down the field to the most visible candidates. For the remainder of this analysis, I will be restricting the candidates to those who have earned delegates in the caucuses and primaries to date. At time of writing, this includes Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (presented here alphabetically by last name to avoid any perceptions of my own biases).

Now that we’ve scoped the number of candidates, let’s dive deeper into what “electability” really means. I presented this question to my fellow journal editors. They provided a wide array of different definitions, including:

  • How well a candidate resonates with the party base, including how they resonate with the various party factions and how well they unite the disparate wings of the party
  • How well a candidate connects with the relevant interests of demographic groups like people of color, women, LGBTQ+ population, and young voters
  • Someone you’d want to have a beer with
  • How strong a candidate’s conviction is to fight for their ideals
  • An amorphous term that changes depending on who is making the argument
  • A made-up concept used to justify not supporting candidates with more extreme views

But far and away, the most common definition my colleagues produced was “able to win elections.” So much for a nuanced and complex definition. But on I must tread. Drawing together the less pessimistic concepts presented above, I feel comfortable in defining electability as “the ability to draw together people from somewhat disparate sociopolitical backgrounds and champion the ideas of a unified base…who can also win elections.”

Let’s apply this definition to our five candidates, beginning with Biden. An early frontrunner in the polls, Biden has frustrated the definition of electability by performing poorly in the early primaries and caucuses. Many touted Biden as the most electable candidate in early months prior to any primary contests[i], but after turning in poor performances in all three primaries to date, his star may have fallen. Popular discourse has also run aground on Biden’s ability to court minority blocks; after the New Hampshire primary, Biden’s former sway amongst black voters appears to be eroding[ii], while his sway with young voters has been in question for some time[iii] as his more centrist platform fails to address the issues important to today’s youth. It seems his strongest base is older voters, who lose relative power as a voting bloc as more and more progressive youth reach voting age. It would seem that Biden’s once stronghold on the “electability” title has crumbled away in recent weeks.

Bernie Sanders appears to represent everything that Biden does not. His self-purported democratic socialist ideology has proven popular with young voters and unpopular with older voters[iv], and he has arguably been the most consistent candidate regarding a number of revolutionary policies such as Medicare for All and high taxes for the wealthy. While his message has resonated with a population of disaffected voters, some may say he’s too revolutionary, and while Bernie has performed well in early primaries, his message has yet to be tested in more diverse states during this election cycle. That said, Bernie has surged in the polls, both rising to the top in national primary polls[v] and in general election polls against Trump[vi], and went toe-to-toe with Pete Buttigieg in two states before dominating the Nevada caucuses. It may be that Bernie’s brand of progressive, socially focused policies is exactly what the nation wants right now, naysayers be damned.

Bernie is not without competition on the left-leaning wing of the party. Warren has presented a similar message since the beginning of the primaries, albeit slightly less progressive. However, it seems in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, her progressive message has been eclipsed by Bernie’s message, and her star has fallen far in the past few months[vii], turning in poor performances in all three primary contests to date. Some sources purport that sexism was a problem, or her policies weren’t progressive enough to court Bernie’ base[viii], but it seems to me at this juncture, her unwillingness to go all the way was ultimately her downfall, and any support she built amongst different voting blocs may be abandoning ship to support Bernie instead.

Warren is not alone in her struggle against sexism in the nomination process. Amy Klobuchar, the only other major female candidate, is in the same boat. But Klobuchar has a different swagger compared to Warren. For one, she’s a much more centrist candidate than the progressive Warren. Klobuchar also has a remarkable stronghold in the Midwest[ix], where her Minnesotan sensibilities seem most at home. That said, Klobuchar has struggled to gain ground even right next door in Iowa, where she earned only one delegate (at least as it appears at the moment). Beyond this, there don’t seem to be any fervent supporters that enthusiastically back Klobuchar the way the young back Bernie or the old back Biden. For the time being, Klobuchar is easy to count out.

And then there’s Mayor Pete, the upstart mayor from a small-ish Indiana city who’s made a big splash going toe-to-toe with Bernie in the early primaries. What brought about this rise? Was it his more centrist message? Was it his LGBTQ+ background? It may have simply been his strong campaign work in the early small states[x]. But as it turns out, his centrist message backed by numerous billionaire donors[xi] isn’t for everyone, especially the left-leaning wing of the party that has thrown their weight behind Bernie. Will smart campaigning in small states be enough? We’ll see soon.

I can’t help but feel that after several paragraphs of analysis on candidates’ messages, polling support, campaign strategies, and stumbling blocks, we haven’t gotten very far. While Bernie has made a case for his electability, Super Tuesday has yet to come, and both California and Texas have the numbers to make a big splash for any candidate who can court the diverse voting blocs in both states. Ultimately, the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is anyone’s game, and it all falls to which voting blocs are the most mobilized to make their way to the polls through November. Will the candidate that comes out on top be “electable”? By the definition I established, probably. Most recent national polls show pretty much every candidate having a narrow margin against Trump. Will that be enough? It certainly wasn’t in the face of an electoral system that doesn’t directly rely on the popular vote in 2016. So maybe “electability” doesn’t even matter anyway. Nevertheless, there’s only one way to find out: exercising your right to vote.

Randy Clopton is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

Works Cited