As the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest gets underway, there is understandably an almost neurotic preoccupation among party activists and voters alike about choosing someone “electable” to deny Donald Trump the terrifying prospect of a second term in the White House. The fear of again “blowing it” against Trump, as Hillary Clinton is perceived to have done in 2016 (with a lot of help from James Comey, the media, and complacent voters), will probably intensify as voting begins next year, assuming the general election looks as competitive as it does right now.
There is not, unfortunately, one crystal-clear way to determine “electability.” As I observed recently, multiple 2020 candidates have “electability” arguments based on different assumptions of what will work against Trump specifically or Republicans generally. But without question, general-election trial-heat polls matching this or that Democrat against the incumbent will get more attention than they probably deserve. Joe Biden’s generally strong performance in such polls is undoubtedly boosting his 2020 campaign.
One of the ironies of trying to assess the viability of candidates against Trump is that Trump himself flunked every imaginable test of “electability” throughout much of the 2016 presidential cycle. I took a look at two polls taken at roughly this time in 2015, and they sure didn’t make the mogul look like someone likely to take down Clinton. A May 2015 Quinnipiac survey showed HRC leading Mike Huckabee by seven points; Scott Walker by eight points; Chris Christie by nine points; Jeb Bush by 10 points, Ted Cruz by 11 points — and Donald Trump by 18 points. A CNN survey taken the next month, shortly after Trump’s official announcement of candidacy, had Clinton leading him by 24 points; again, he ran more poorly than the rest of the field by a considerable margin. In July 2015, a McLatchy–Marist poll found an assortment of Republican candidates within single digits of HRC, and Trump down by 16 points. And Trump’s uniquely and universally poor standing had nothing to do with the name identification problem some of his rivals faced: A July 2015 Gallup survey found him to be the best-known Republican in the field.
So anyone paying attention to objective measurements of “electability” at this point in the 2016 contest would have written off Trump entirely. And he certainly did not do any better in subjective assessments of the kind of Republican candidate likely to win. He had zero governing experience, a vast boneyard of business and personal skeletons in his closet, and the least “statesmanlike” demeanor possible. And as Kyle Kondik noted in a piece on how slippery electability can be, he was “wrong” on the issues, too:
Following 2012, a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee laid out a roadmap back to national power that, among other things, emphasized the need for comprehensive immigration reform and better outreach to minorities. One couldn’t have designed in a lab a candidate who flew more in the face of that roadmap than Trump, who has demagogued immigrants, loudly insisted on building a wall along the southern border with Mexico, and broke into national GOP politics by suggesting, without proof, that the nation’s first nonwhite president wasn’t really a natural-born American. By the Republican Party’s own reckoning, Trump wasn’t electable in 2016, which helps explain why party leadership was so hostile to his candidacy.
So at this point in the 2020 contest, which Democratic prospect is less “electable” than Trump was at the same point in 2015? Any of them?
As Kondik points out, there’s a rich history of successful presidential candidates who were once deemed unelectable:
[T]he question of [Bill] Clinton’s ability to win in 1992 was such an issue that one of his competitors, then-former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown, was asked to opine on it during a debate. Clinton had dealt with a litany of controversies, including his rampant womanizing and questions about whether he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam war. Clinton, though consistently dogged by scandal, went on to win two terms in the White House.
One of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, Mark Penn, wrote a memo in the early stages of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary that included an observation that her chief rival, Obama, was “unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun.” Whether any African American could win a general election was a theme that hovered over 2008.
As late as March 1980, former President Gerald Ford was saying this of his 1976 primary rival, Ronald Reagan, as part of the same interview cited above: “Every place I go and everything I hear, there is the growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win this election.”
Does this mean that Democrats should just throw up their hands and forget about “electability” altogether? No, not unless they’re perfectly happy with the possibility of maximizing the odds of a 2021 hellscape in which Trump will be able to enjoy four more years in office with even less accountability than he has right now. But they should check their premises regularly in terms of how they define their candidates’ general-election strength, and look at polls not less often but more carefully.