Unelectable

Ronald Reagan was unelectable in 1980. Way out of the mainstream, a product of the same conservative movement responsible for the Goldwater debacle sixteen years earlier. Dangerously trigger-happy while the Cold War was still raging. The public will never accept him. Jimmy Carter couldn’t wait to run against him.

Bill Clinton was unelectable in 1992. Way too much baggage. He was Slick Willy. Never-ending scandals. In mid-summer, he was actually running third behind George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. During his inaugural festivities, he played a video montage of television pundits declaring that his candidacy was finished.

Barack Obama was unelectable in 2008. Way too much prejudice. America wasn’t ready for an African American president, especially one whose middle name is Hussein. He’s from Hawaii — just too exotic for anyone who isn’t a coastal elite. Seemed aloof and distant. Maybe one day, but not in 2008. 

Donald Trump was unelectable in 2016. Are you serious? Way too unqualified. I mean, the idea of Trump as president was laughable. He wasn’t even running a real campaign — just a branding exercise. He’s a reality TV star who plays a billionaire on TV. Everything about him is fake. And he has no abilities, talent or experience. 

We’ve certainly elected a lot of unelectable candidates over the past forty years.

Remember this when someone tells you that a particular candidate is unelectable. Whenever you hear that America will never vote for someone because they are not male, not white, not straight, not likable, too progressive, a self-described socialist, or whatever the reason may be, remember they aren’t making an argument as much as they are revealing their biases and concerns, perhaps shaped by the trauma of 2016 (or in the case of older Democrats, the haunting wipe-outs of the McGovern and Mondale years).

The tendency to want to sideline candidates out of the fear they are unelectable is entirely understandable in a contest as important as the 2020 election. The survival of the Republic is on the ballot, so people may not want to take a chance on a candidate whose election would be historic. But when they tell you that the reason not to take such a chance is because (fill in the blank) is unelectable because they are (not male/not white/not straight/not likable/too progressive/way too progressive), they are supporting their claims with . . . absolutely nothing. It’s just a hunch, just like the notion that an electable candidate is someone rooted in mainstream politics, doesn’t offend, and looks like every president since before 44. You know, a candidate like John Kerry. That candidate might win, but there is no guarantee. There isn’t even a guarantee that they will perform better than their primary opponents. 

Unfortunately, we can never have a definitive answer to the electability question. We will never know for certain if Biden will do better in a general election than Warren, Harris, Sanders or Buttigieg because we only get to hold the election once. So my advice is to let the electability question take care of itself. If you’re trying to make up your mind about which candidate to support, go with whichever candidate you like. You can’t anticipate or control how other people will vote sixteen months from now, so let your preferences guide you.

If you’re enthusiastic about someone, avoid thinking how you would support them if you only thought they could win. Your support for them is what makes it possible for them to win. I guarantee you that if your candidate is nominated, it will be because he or she has been able to stitch together a broad coalition of voters who feel like you do, and that should give them the best thing you can hope for in a nominee — a reasonable chance of winning. Because if your enthusiasm isn’t shared by enough other voters, that’s what really makes them unelectable.