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The Electability Criterion

Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Many liberal bloggers these days are very down on the concept of electability. Put most eloquently by Chris Bowers, the idea is that candidates who are perceived as electable are really just wishy-washy moderates who can't run effective general election campaigns, thus resulting in a demobilized base and a smear job by the Republicans. Far better, so the theory goes, to nominate a passionate true-Blue Democrat who will fight back. The primary example deployed in this argument is John Kerry, who supposedly was a weak nominee destined to lose. Advocates for this position also sometimes suggest that the Republicans never worry about electability.

Except which candidate today is arguing that he should be the nominee because he is the most electable? Why, progressive/populist John Edwards, the man who is running the sort of campaign the "netroots" has been clamoring for. Now Edwards is probably just making the not-so-subtle point that Democrats are taking a huge risk if they nominate a black of a woman, but there is also the case to be made that white Southern male Democrats do better among swing voters in the border states and farm belt. It's not fair, but there it is.

Beyond the case of Edwards, I must object to the notion that Kerry was a poor nominee. Despite what many of my fellow bloggers would like to believe, Howard Dean would have been devoured by Karl Rove. We must remember that Kerry won 48% of the vote against a sitting President in wartime - no minor accomplishment. Did he run a sufficiently aggressive campaign? Perhaps not. But there is a case to be made that a) he faced a hostile press - as would any Democrat, and b) it is extremely difficult to "go negative" against wartime Presidents without appearing unpatriotic. I am not so convinced that any Democrat, running any sort of campaign, would have done any better against Bush. It's a pretty iron-clad rule that Presidents get their approval ratings on election day, no matter who the opposing nominee is. Bush was in (barely) positive territory, and he got a close win.

What is truly bizarre, however, is the suggestion that a political party interested in winning elections would not take a candidate's potential vote-getting ability into account. The ability to win is always the dominant concern of any nomination contest. And of course the Republicans take electability into consideration, which is why Tancredo and Brownback are also-rans and that useful cypher Fred Thompson is leading in the polls.

None of this is to say that Democrats shouldn't desire a candidate who will champion liberal ideas. But if that candidate can't win, then what's the point in nominating him/her? Do you truly believe it's better to end up with a Republican in office than a middle-of-the-road Democrat? Sounds like some real Naderish reasoning to me.

I am not saying that electability should be our sole concern, but I am arguing that it is a conditioning factor on every other consideration. Think of it as a simple equation, in which the wisdom of supporting a candidate (C), is equal to our support of that candidate's issues (I) multiplied by his/her likelihood of winning (W). If W is close to zero, then it really doesn't matter what I is, does it? As Lyndon Johnson said, there is nothing more useless than a dead liberal.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:27 PM
  • Well said. I do think that part of the resentment toward Kerry was the feeling that people had voted for him not because he was electable, but because his campaign kept saying he was. The trick with electability is who determines who is electable, and based on what criteria? You can easily fall into the trap of letting your field of possibilities be determined by the conventional wisdom.

    That's not to say you can't use polls to determine the relative strength of candidates, or use assessments of their leadership qualities, etc. But again, who then becomes the gatekeeper?

    Still, on a larger level, you're right - politics is, as they always say, the art of the possible. You can't make good policy without good politics.

    By Blogger Paul Curtis, at 12:52 PM  
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