“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.”