The Right Way to Think About ‘Electability’

Set aside intuition and look at how Joe Biden matches up against Donald Trump on specific issues.

Joe Biden
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The highest priority for Democrats in 2020 is a challenger who can beat President Donald Trump. Many believe that Joe Biden is the candidate best able to do it.

They may be right.

Biden has excellent name recognition rooted in his association with a popular two-term president. And no one doubts that he has the experience to do the job. Then again, skeptics retort, the former vice president doesn’t energize democratic socialists, woke identitarians, or pundits in the liberal media. “Recent presidential elections have taught the two major parties not to settle for someone who seems electable and unthreatening to swing voters,” Michael Brendan Dougherty argues at National Review, “but to go with the candidate who excites them in the hope that excitement itself will be contagious.”

My colleague Peter Beinart has articulated a third position: that focusing on electability is folly because it is impossible to know who is most likely to win a general election. I certainly wouldn’t bet on which Democrat would most handily beat an as-yet-unknown Republican. But evaluating relative electability is a bit easier when the opponent is known. Pollsters can put the question to voters directly. And it’s possible to assess how rivals match up on specific issues.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton matched up relatively poorly against Donald Trump, which is to say that she was ill-positioned to counter some of his most glaring weaknesses as a candidate. Her support for disastrous wars in Iraq and Libya made it hard for her to exploit Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience, for example. And a better-matched opponent could have capitalized more on Trump’s corruption in business, while Clinton was hamstrung by evidence that she was a self-dealing insider beset by ethically dubious conflicts of interest. She’d even given secret, lavishly compensated speeches to Wall Street bankers. And she couldn’t press Trump on his poor treatment of women as effectively as someone unconstrained by her husband’s history of bad behavior.

I wrote at the time, “The Democratic nominee’s shortcomings should not blind voters to the catastrophe they’d invite by electing her cruel, undisciplined, erratic opponent.” Nevertheless, she wasn’t able to attack Trump on the aforementioned subjects as effectively as could Senator Bernie Sanders.

Biden would have some similar problems. He, too, voted in favor of the Iraq War, putting him in a weaker place than other candidates on foreign policy. As a senator representing Delaware, he fed his campaign coffers with money from credit-card companies, sold a house to a credit-card-industry executive for a suspiciously inflated sum, and had a son working in the industry as he championed a law that made it harder to discharge credit-card debt in bankruptcy.

Now it appears his vice presidency involved a similar conflict of interest.

“One of his most memorable performances came on a trip to Kiev in March 2016, when he threatened to withhold $1 billion in United States loan guarantees if Ukraine’s leaders did not dismiss the country’s top prosecutor,” The New York Times reports. “Among those who had a stake in the outcome was Hunter Biden, Mr. Biden’s younger son, who at the time was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.” Is he the best candidate to press Trump on the relationship between his presidency, his kids, and profiting from foreign governments?

He is not.

And while Biden treats women orders of magnitude better than does Trump, this is an era of collapsing distinctions, so Biden would likely be a less effective critic of the president than some rivals due to his role in the Anita Hill hearings and complaints that he makes some women uncomfortable when he hugs them.

Of course, there are also ways in which Biden matches up better than other candidates––for example, he polls better than most of his rivals among voters overall in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, he seems more likely than most to win over the sorts of white working-class voters Trump needs to win, and he performs extremely well among people of color, a group Democrats must win.

Given the priorities of Democratic voters, the electability question isn’t going anywhere. Orienting that conversation around polls and analysis of how different candidates compare with Trump on likely campaign issues is one way to ground analysis in something more than intuition, even if certainty will remain elusive.