Sometimes it feels like political writers (myself included) spend a lot of time trying to tell voters to think differently than they actually do. This is clearly the case with Democrats and their obsession with presidential “electability.” My colleague Eric Levitz and I have both written about how slippery the very concept is, with Eric sensibly concluding Democrats should “simply vote for whichever candidate they would most like to be president.”
But at this point, there’s really little evidence that the electability craze is going to fade, or that it will stop mattering as it becomes simply another sign of candidate preferences determined by other factors. In a new poll it conducted with Ipsos, FiveThirtyEight found fresh evidence this week that beating Trump is the top “issue” for Democrats watching presidential debates, even though the candidates spend most of their time talking about policy matters:
In our FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, we surveyed the same set of respondents both before and after the debate to find out what issue was most important in determining their vote in the primary. And what we learned was Democrats are most concerned about defeating President Trump — nearly 40 percent of respondents said this was their top issue. For reference, the next-most-common top issue — health care — was picked by just 10 percent voters before the debate and 11 percent after.
Other surveys (like Monmouth’s) that suggest a choice between candidates with significantly different odds of beating Trump show an even higher focus on electability, as Amy Walter noted last month in looking at Iowa:
[T]he 2008 Democratic caucus exit poll, found that just 8 percent of Democratic caucus-goers picked “has the best chance to win in November” as one of the four personal qualities that mattered most in their vote. The top choice, at a whopping 52 percent, was “can bring needed change.” In 2016, “can win in November” came in fourth place at 20 percent, behind “right experience” (28 percent), “cares about people like me,” (26 percent), and “honest and trustworthy” (24 percent).
In 2004, “can beat Bush” (26 percent) came in a close second to “takes a strong stand” (29 percent). This year, the desire to beat Trump is even more intense. When asked [in a new Monmouth poll] if they had to choose between a candidate they agree with on issues but would have a hard time beating Trump, or a Democrat they don’t agree with but who’d be stronger facing off against the president, 72 percent of Iowa Democrats picked the candidate who could beat Trump.
In other words, Democrats are not in the mood to gamble on the general-election outcome in order to address particular issues they care about or elevate politicians to whom they are attracted. And although many of us “experts” are skeptical about Joe Biden’s electability credentials, those doubts have yet to spread to voters, who consistently give the former veep high marks for his perceived ability to beat Trump, as Ron Brownstein recently noted:
In this week’s national ABC/Washington Post poll, for instance, 45 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents picked Biden as the candidate most likely to beat Trump, far more than those who selected Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont (14 percent) or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (12 percent) …
Other recent polls in competitive 2020 states have found a comparable gap. In a Quinnipiac University poll of Texas Democrats released yesterday, Biden led both Sanders and Warren by five to one on the question of electability; in a Quinnipiac Pennsylvania poll from May, two-thirds of Democratic voters 50 and older picked Biden as the most electable — no one else drew more than 3 percent of them.
My own theory about Biden’s electability advantage is that while voters may have wildly different ways of measuring electability, the front-runner tends to do well in more of them than anyone else, in ways that have endured and may well continue to do so.
The most obvious is Biden’s consistent strength in head-to-head polls against Trump. You can remind people all day long that these are unreliable indicators of how a general-election campaign will actually play out, but they won’t be able to ignore them. And Biden’s advantage here is significant. There is not a single poll in the RealClearPolitics database of 2020 trial heats between Biden and Trump in which Biden does not lead. His current lead in RCP’s polling averages is an enormous 11.5 percent (Sanders’s is 7.0 percent, and Warren’s is 5.2 percent, but both have trailed Trump in some surveys).
A second factor making Biden Mr. Electable is the widespread belief among pundits and voters alike that, all things being equal, proximity to the political “center” is a general-election asset. The more we approach a three-candidate nominating contest in which Biden’s only real challenge comes from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the more Biden’s relative “moderation” will become evident. That may hurt him with some primary voters, but it could at the same time enhance his perceived electability.
A third factor some analysts focus on is the practical ability to win voters the party lost in 2016 — either to Trump or to third parties or to the living-room couch. There’s at best limited evidence that Biden is more popular than other Democrats in the much-chewed-over white working-class demographic (especially Obama-Trump voters). But he certainly talks about his focus on these voters a lot, which enhances the perception they are his people. And he certainly has conspicuous strength among African-American voters, whose fall-off in turnout was a big problem for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden does not look like a good bet to energize younger voters, but Trump might well do that for him.
And finally, Biden’s electability ace-in-the-hole could be simply his familiarity and likability, which at least one study has shown is the most important source of the belief in his electoral strength, as Brownstein explains:
To [Third Way’s Lanae] Erickson the research points to a two-part explanation for [Biden’s] consistent advantage. Voters, she said, believe that Democrats must be united to defeat as formidable an adversary as Trump, and Biden — as a former vice president and senator with decades of experience — has the stature that they believe is necessary to coalesce the party. The logic, she said, is that “we know this person … He’s a known quantity who can unite. It’s the risk-averse way of thinking about things if you are worried that this [primary race] could get out of control.”
“Risk-averse” is probably the most important term to remember in assessing Democratic voters heading toward 2020. They still don’t entirely understand how Hillary Clinton managed to lose to Donald Trump in 2016, but they aren’t inclined to take anything for granted this time around. And that will make it difficult for candidates other than Biden to convince Democrats their other qualities are worth taking a bit of a risk on. Sure, Biden could in theory blow himself up with some high-profile gaffe that undermines the very premise of his candidacy. But that’s not within anyone else’s control.