A Nation of Pundits

Electability is king in the 2020 Democratic primary as voters are choosing candidates they think their fellow citizens would support—not the ones they actually like best.

Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—Ask any New Hampshire Democrats which of the nearly two dozen candidates they’re voting for in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which is still six months away, and the reply usually isn’t a name, but a list—a few candidates they like, perhaps, or maybe a couple they’ve ruled out.

Ask them what factor is most important in their choice, however, and the response is instantaneous and nearly universal, right down to the words they use: “Who can beat Trump.”

These are the electability voters, and they are now driving the Democratic primary. They’re the biggest reason—perhaps even the only reason—that former Vice President Joe Biden remains atop the field: Whether they’re correct or not, rank-and-file Democrats believe Biden has the best chance of defeating President Donald Trump next fall, and that—more than health care, climate change, immigration, or any other single policy issue—is what they care about above all.

“Whoever can beat Trump is most important. I want him in prison,” Elizabeth Keniston told me in Portsmouth, where she was waiting for Biden to speak outside a local brewery on a humid Friday evening this summer. “I like the other platforms better, but I think he’s the only one the middle of the country might vote for. I usually vote for the person I want. But this year I’m going to be more thoughtful. I look at polls.”

Electability has long been a factor in the nomination battles of both parties, its significance varying from election to election. But the still-fresh shock of Trump’s 2016 victory and the desperation that many Democrats feel to get him out of office has elevated the concern to a higher priority than ever before, as I saw in interviews across New Hampshire. Electability has turned citizens such as Keniston, a 77-year-old nurse from nearby Stratham, New Hampshire, into amateur pundits themselves: They are basing their choice less on which candidate appeals the most to them than on which one they believe will appeal the most to others.

“I am definitely looking at those swing states and trying to think of it from their perspective. Because in hindsight, that’s where I think we failed,” explained Denise Day, a 60-year-old social worker from Durham, New Hampshire. “Now electability is huge. It’s at the forefront.”

Still, electability isn’t an easily definable trait in politics. It’s a reflection of the commentary people read online or see on cable TV, and it can be a stand-in for racist or sexist assumptions. And as a predictor of results, perceived electability is unreliable—just ask Presidents John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.

But its prominence may also be a manifestation of a more troubling trend in American civic life: the deepening distrust in one’s fellow citizens. The rise in electability voters coincides with a decades-long decline in interpersonal trust, as well as data indicating that most Americans lack confidence in others to cast an informed vote. In New Hampshire, voters seem to take seriously their role as the great winnowers in presidential politics, performing a service on behalf of their fellow Americans; after the caucus-goers in Iowa make their pick, New Hampshire gets to sort—and sometimes scramble—the large field of contenders and send a smaller, more viable group to South Carolina, Nevada, and beyond.

Biden was the 11th candidate Day had seen this year, and by the end of the weekend, she was due to see two more. She told me that friends of hers had voted for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, over Clinton in 2016. Although Clinton carried New Hampshire by about 3,000 votes, Stein’s haul exceeded the margin between Clinton and Trump in each of the three states that decided the last election: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Day told me she planned to quiz those friends about the Democratic candidates before she decided whom to vote for herself: “I’m definitely turning to them and saying, ‘What’s it going to take to win your vote?’”

There’s good reason electability has always been more of a feature than a bug in American politics: A party has to win before it can govern, and a major goal of any presidential-nomination fight is to find the strongest candidate to carry the party banner in a general election.

“This is a thing that party leaders have struggled with almost since we’ve had parties,” Seth Masket, the director of the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics, told me. “It’s just that since the 1970s, a lot of that decision making has been transferred to voters.”

Over roughly the past half century, candidates have used primaries to demonstrate the breadth of their appeal and showcase their viability. In 1960, at a time when nominations were still won or lost in smoke-filled back rooms and on the convention floor, John F. Kennedy contested the West Virginia primary against Hubert Humphrey specifically to prove that a Catholic candidate could capture a predominantly working-class Protestant state. His victory there helped assuage the fears of Democratic leaders strategizing about how to beat Richard Nixon that fall. “The electability issue was really foremost there,” Masket said.

More recently, concerns about Howard Dean’s electability against President George W. Bush in 2004 doomed the Vermont governor’s chances of the Democratic nomination. The outspoken Dean had run to the left of his main rivals, denouncing the invasion of Iraq while approval of the war remained strong. “People decided, in New Hampshire and then generally, that [John] Kerry had a better chance to beat Bush than anybody else,” recalled Bob Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who was a senior adviser to Kerry in that race.

Yet in recent polling, the preference for electability—as opposed to agreement on issues—has been even higher among Democrats this year than it was at this point in the 2004 race, or among Republicans when they tried to defeat an incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama, in 2012. In 2008 and 2016, by contrast, most Democratic voters prioritized ideology over electability in public polling.

And the preference for electability may get even stronger in the months ahead, said Jeff Jones, a senior editor at Gallup, “as we get closer and people get more focused on the election.”

That would be good news for Biden. In several recent polls, three times as many respondents picked Biden as the contender with the best chance of winning against Trump as picked any other candidate. He also routinely performs the best in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against the president, both nationally and in key states. “It’s what’s holding Biden up,” Shrum told me.

Shrum, who first began working for Democratic presidential candidates in the early 1970s, said the voter demand for electability has only intensified in the past two decades. This year, it’s the strongest he’s ever seen. “It’s the nature of the media and the fact that we’re suffused with media now, and suffused with horse-race stories,” Shrum explained. “But it’s also the fact that the last two Republican presidents, George W. Bush and, to a much greater extent, Donald Trump, are really unacceptable to Democrats and to a lot of independents in a way that was, say, never true with Reagan.”

At the individual level, voters’ reluctance to simply cast their lot with the candidate they like the most comes down to trust—whether people trust others to make the same judgment, or vote based on the same value set, that they do. And trust is in short supply among Americans right now.

The decline in trust in institutions over the past few decades has been well documented, but a less heralded drop has also occurred in interpersonal trust. “Overall, trust in other people has gone straight down,” said Eric Uslaner, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland who has been studying the issue for years. Uslaner told me that in the 1960s, nearly 60 percent of respondents in public polling said they trusted other people to do the right thing, but that number has slipped to about 35 to 40 percent today, depending on the survey.

Americans also perceive that their levels of interpersonal trust have declined. In July, the Pew Research Center published a major report on trust and found that 64 percent believed that people’s confidence in one another is shrinking. And while a strong majority of people still trusted others on some matters—reporting problems to local authorities, for example, or paying their fair share of taxes—less than half, or 43 percent, had confidence in others to cast informed votes in elections.

The Pew study did not connect the organization’s findings about interpersonal trust to its separate findings about electability, but in interviews, respondents cited the 2016 election as a factor in their erosion of faith in one another. The election, said Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of internet and technology research, “just opened their eyes to realities that they hadn’t grasped. Their neighbors thought a certain way, and they weren’t tuned in to it, and all of a sudden they wake up the morning after the election and they find that their community has substantial support for Trump that they never knew about or never thought about.”

Rainie summarized the responses this way: I thought I knew my neighbors, and I thought I knew my fellow citizens, and it turns out I didn’t.”

If presidential campaigns often force voters to choose between their head and their heart, then in this Democratic primary, the head is clearly winning. And the candidate who appears to be hurting most—at least among the top-tier contenders—is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Warren has drawn some of the largest, most passionate crowds of the campaign, and her many detailed plans have received enthusiastic reviews from progressive-policy experts and voters alike. In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, she had a clear lead on the question of which candidate has the best policy ideas in the race. Thirty-two percent of Democratic respondents picked Warren, nearly twice the percentage that chose either of the next two runners-up, Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Yet on the headline question of which candidate would get their vote in the Quinnipiac poll, Biden held an 11-point lead over Warren, who is still plagued by fears among some Democrats that she would be vulnerable to defeat by Trump next year.

To die-hard Warren supporters, however, questions about her electability—and comparisons between her candidacy and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016—are simply a cover masking a dark stain in American politics, even among Democrats. “I think the electability stuff is just a sexist ruse,” said Victoria Simon, 70, a retired social worker who was one of more than 800 people who packed into a Warren event last month at Peterborough’s town hall.

Simon’s analysis isn’t a mere hunch. In late spring, a Democratic data firm called Avalanche Strategies surveyed more than 1,800 registered voters about the primary race. On the surface, the findings matched other polling data: The Democratic electorate is anxious and unsettled about the 2020 race, and among its priorities for a nominee, electability is king. But the survey dug a bit deeper and found that gender appeared to have a greater effect on perceived electability than age, race, sexual orientation, or even ideology. When electability was removed from the equation, Warren held a slim lead over every other Democrat. But as the poll focused on why Democrats perceived her as less electable than her rivals, the fact that she was a woman was a bigger factor holding her back than her brand of liberalism.

Even more striking were the open-ended responses when voters were asked what one thing the candidate they liked best would need to change in order to win the general election. “She needs to change that she’s a woman, because America can’t accept truth from a woman when the lies of men are so much more soothing,” a 49-year-old man from Washington State replied.

“I’m not sure a woman can beat Trump,” a 39-year-old Kentucky woman said. “Honestly, the misogyny and racism in this country right now is heartbreaking. I hope one day she’s president, though. She is amazing.”

Michiah Prull, Avalanche’s CEO, told me that he saw “a certain amount of shell shock from 2016” in the findings, as voters recalled Trump’s upset victory over a woman even after the October revelation of a videotape in which he was caught joking about sexual assault. “You have a lot of Democrats questioning what it takes to win in America,” he said, “and whether a female candidate can win.”

For all the jittery New Hampshire Democrats scouring polls and trying to figure out whom their brethren in Michigan and Wisconsin might like, there’s another contingent fretting that the focus on electability isn’t just coded sexism, but a silly strategy. They point out that the candidates who Democrats thought were most electable in the past ended up losing.

Alex Woodford, 54, an educator from Peterborough, told me she backed Clinton over Sanders in 2016 in part because of the electability argument. (Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was seen as a riskier nominee than the former secretary of state and first lady.) “Maybe that’s not the way to go,” she told me as she waited in line to hear Warren speak. “I’m kind of done with that rationale.

“We assume to know the future, but we don’t,” Woodford added. “People should vote for who they believe in.”

Alexandra Stewart, a 35-year-old teacher from Concord, told me she was leaning toward Warren and got nervous when she heard people talk about electability. “As Democrats, we do a lot of second-guessing,” she said. “I think we screw with the formula.

“We like this candidate,” Stewart continued, “but we don’t trust that other people do. That’s what makes me nervous.”

As the 2020 primary grinds on toward the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, that skepticism among Democrats about how their fellow voters will judge the candidates is touching every aspect of the election. It’s informing how the candidates joust with one another onstage during debates, as they try to make the case not only that they’re the most qualified to govern as president, but also that they’re singularly capable of defeating Trump next year. And it’s informing how those watching at home judge the candidates too.

In Laconia, I met Dara McCue, a 66-year-old retiree who was waiting to hear Pete Buttigieg address a crowded community center. She was a Sanders voter in 2016, but she said she’s looking at things “totally differently” this year. Like so many others, McCue told me her priority is winning. She thought Warren and Senator Kamala Harris were the best debaters; they could “flatten Trump,” McCue said excitedly. But she qualified her view about Warren.

“Elizabeth Warren might be a little too liberal on some things,” McCue said.

Too liberal for you, or too liberal for the country? I asked her.

“More okay for me,” McCue replied, “less for the country.”