Electability: A Matter of Perception
”Electability” has been the word of 2020 so far. A search of The Washington Post’s online database returned 3,277 results when I searched for the word “electability” in content from the last 60 days. It has been the word on the lips of people closest to me when conversations turn to the upcoming election. Democrats are looking for the most electable candidate. What does that word really mean?
Electability is a coded way of referring to the candidate who is most likely to beat Donald Trump. The media has seized on this term, as it is at the top of many Democrats minds as they head to the polls. The Washington Post and ABC have been polling on which candidates are most electable:
All this talk of electability got me wondering: Is this a phenomenon that can be isolated to 2020? Or is this issue of electability a concern that has manifested in past elections?
I decided to search the archive of the Washington Post, available on the DC Public Library (as a side note - god bless the public library system for making so much available to the public for free. Shout out the librarians and library scientists and library advocates for making so much available to the public, free of charge.)
I chose a particular date range to isolate it outside of the world of Trump - 1974 (the earliest date available) to 2000. My search revealed that over 400 articles had been written in that time frame with the word “electability” in the headline.
There are some interesting finds in the archives from this time frame. Take this gem, for example. In the 1992 Democratic primary cycle, Mary McGrory wrote an opinion piece titled “Electability: A Matter of Style.” A little known Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton was running an underdog campaign against the bookish Paul Tsongas. Tsongas was a former Massachusetts state senator and Clinton was seen as a charismatic challenger with a progressive vision. At the time, the Democrats were choosing a candidate to run against the Reagan/Bush machine. Reagan, of course, won in 1980 and 1984, followed by a victory by his Vice President George Bush in 1988. After 12 years of Republican rule in the White House, Democrats were nervously trying to find a candidate who could defeat the Republicans. In the article, she wrote, “It's a tough choice between swinger and square, and the strain is evident in a new voter snappishness with inquiring strangers. Who to send in against George Bush, his dirty tricksters, his fiendish admen?”
Shifting back to the present, there have been numerous articles published in the most recent news cycle following Sen. Bernie Sanders triumph in Nevada. He has a clear lead in delegates and his outsider, insurgent campaign has been crowned with a new title: front runner. From running a long shot campaign in 2016 to challenge Sec. Hillary Clinton, it is remarkable that Sen. Sanders has now become the man to beat in a crowded field of Democrats.
It was only a few weeks ago that Joe Biden was the man to beat on the electability issue. But after two caucuses and one primary in which he did not finish first, Sanders is now seen as the most electable candidate.
But, concerns about electability persist, even for front runner Sanders. Democrats worry that nominating a candidate so far-left will hand the election to President Trump. Is he more electable that Donald Trump? Only time will tell.
One last thing on electability: The last two people to win the White House were a first term African American Senator and a business man with no previous government experience. In 1992, the governor of a small state won the nomination and beat the Reagan/Bush machine, and all of the dirty tricksters and fiendish admen. If Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton could overcome electability concerns, perhaps Bernie Sanders (or any Democrat, for that matter) can too.