Once upon a time, about, oh, ten months ago, the political class was dead certain of two things: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were pretty close to unelectable. Hillary’s case was the more obvious of the two. Although she was clearly the Democratic front-runner, political pros doubted whether such a polarizing politician, one who was viewed unfavorably by nearly half of all Americans surveyed, could convince Democratic primary voters that she gave their party the best shot to win back the White House. As the Washington Post editorialized on the occasion of her formal entry into the race, “The question about Hillary Clinton may be not so much whether a woman can win the presidency but whether this woman can.”
Rudy faced similar questions. It was widely assumed that his moderate views on abortion and guns would help him in a general election. But students of political history—and New York political history in particular—were dubious about how his act would play in Poughkeepsie, much less Peoria. After all, it’s an iron rule of politics that the New York City’s mayor’s office is a “tomb for the politically ambitious,” which is why even popular mayors (La Guardia) and presidential-looking mayors (Lindsay) never managed to ascend to higher office. And while many Americans may consider Giuliani “America’s Mayor” because of his 9/11 performance, New Yorkers had lived under the real, pre-9/11 Rudy—and had no doubt that over the course of a long campaign, the rest of America would come to know that Rudy, too. As an article in National Review Online put it, Giuliani “will probably suffer in a general election campaign from the fact that there is so much evidence in the public record that he is a total jerk.”
So it must have come as something of a shock to the political professionals to pick up the New York Times in mid-November and find a front-page story about a couple of polls of Iowa and New Hampshire voters. Headlined “Polls Find Voters Weighing Issues vs. Electability,” the article reaffirmed the conventional wisdom that electability will heavily influence primary and caucus voters. But the shock came when these voters considered who is the most electable: 47 percent of Iowa Democrats and 68 percent of New Hampshire Democrats named Clinton, and a plurality of Republicans in both states gave the nod to Giuliani. In less than a year, the two candidates had managed to turn what was thought to be their Achilles’ heel into one of their greatest strengths.
Which just goes to show how squishy and even bankrupt “electability” is as a political concept. Unlike political judgments that are based on concrete assessments of, say, a candidate’s record or even something as grubby as his fund-raising prowess, those that are based on a candidate’s supposed electability can change on a moment’s notice. And then change again. Electability is completely ephemeral. Even those hoary and maddeningly indefinable political qualities like “character” and “authenticity” have more meat on their bones.
And that’s probably why those candidates who resort to playing the electability card are, more often than not, losers. According to Merriam-Webster’s, the term electable has been with us since 1879, but it really wasn’t until late last century that candidates started adding electability arguments to their political arsenals. They usually haven’t worked. Adlai Stevenson and his allies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, tried to no avail to use electability against John Kennedy in 1960, claiming that his Catholicism would keep him from winning the general election. In 1984, Gary Hart based much of his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination on the contention that Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee, couldn’t beat Ronald Reagan in November. (That Hart turned out to be right was cold comfort for him.) Four years later, Bob Dole argued that George Bush wasn’t electable, and four years after that, Bob Kerrey said the same about Bill Clinton. (Kerrey was much more colorful than Dole, predicting that Clinton was “going to be opened up like a soft peanut” by Bush.)
The reductio ad absurdum of electability arguments may have come last month, when John McCain’s campaign sent out an e-mail blast titled “Good Polling News” hyping a national poll by Fox News that, in the McCain campaign’s estimation, showed that “John McCain is the Republican candidate best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton”—because in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Clinton, McCain outperformed Giuliani by one percentage point. Alas, there was an inconvenient truth about the poll: It showed McCain and Rudy both losing to Clinton, by three and four points, respectively. In other words, the McCain team’s electability argument boiled down to this lame claim: Our guy will lose by less!