The idea that there is often a difference between the candidate you love the most and the candidate who has the best chance to win is a long-standing fixture of nomination politics, especially in the Democratic Party. But the assumption that "electability" is a quality shared by some potential nominees more than others, and even that it is a valid criterion of candidate selection, was disputed more than usual in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Though it requires diving back into what now seems like a long-ago pre-COVID political world, it's worth revisiting this debate from the perspective of the summer campaign and the current state of the general election race.
Electability was a fraught subject in the 2020 Democratic nomination contest partially because of the perception of a significant ideological divide within the party, made more salient by the viable candidacy of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. Sanders's lack of defensiveness about his philosophical commitments made him an admirable figure in the eyes of his supporters, but also provoked considerable opposition to his prospective nomination among other Democrats—including most of the party's elected officials and a large proportion of its activists and organizational leadership.
Layered on top of this familiar debate over whether a tradeoff exists between electability and ideological purity was another set of concerns about candidates' social identities. Many Democrats had deduced from the racist backlash after Barack Obama's 2008 election and the unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that non-white and (especially) female presidential candidates are likely to lose votes due to the persistence of popular prejudices. Even though they supported the general goal of increasing the demographic diversity of the nation's officeholding class, a number of Democratic primary voters proceeded to draw the natural conclusion that nominating a white male presidential candidate for the first time since 2004 would be the safest path to ejecting the hated Trump from office.
But the prevalence of this view dismayed some feminist commentators, who continued to ascribe Trump's political rise to the prevalence of misogyny in the American public but who objected when this argument was then cited as justification for supporting a male nominee to oppose him. In the young progressive circles that are disproportionately well-represented in the online world, it was common either to reject the electability logic altogether or to claim that it actually favored candidates on the left. The science reporter at a well-known "explainer" website even argued that because differences in the relative potential strength of prospective nominees cannot be determined precisely in advance, the entire concept was dubious even in the abstract: "it's subjective, not objective . . . electability ain't no science." (Normally, the scientific mode of inquiry tends to make a stronger distinction between the difficulty of measuring a phenomenon and the existence or absence of the phenomenon itself.)
Despite these assertions, a coalition of the Democratic Party's most pragmatic constituencies—including African-Americans, southerners, upscale suburbanites, and senior citizens—ultimately rallied behind Joe Biden's self-presentation as the safest choice to send into battle against Trump. Now that we're about midway between the point in March at which Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee and the date of the November election, it's time to re-evaluate the electability debate in light of how the campaign has proceeded so far.
From one perspective, the electability argument for Biden has been completely vindicated. Biden has opened up a bigger lead over Trump in the national popular vote than any candidate has enjoyed at this stage since Bill Clinton coasted to re-election in 1996, and he is so well-positioned in the electoral college that the battleground map has expanded into the traditional red territory of Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas. The Trump campaign has proven unable as of yet to land a damaging punch on Biden, and has even struggled to find a promising line of attack.
Biden hasn't been as invisible a candidate as some critics claim, but his campaign activities during the pandemic have not generated much sustained attention. Because journalists do not find the very familiar Biden to be a particularly fruitful source of interesting stories, the national media has been focusing instead almost entirely on Trump, and Trump's spiraling political problems, since the Democratic nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. The relative novelty of nearly every other major potential nominee—Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg—would have attracted more coverage from the media and pulled the spotlight away from Trump much more frequently.
On the other hand, Biden's current success surely reflects the sinking fortunes of Trump's presidency more than any particular attribute or skill of his own. Even more than most, this election promises to serve as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent; perhaps any plausible Democratic nominee would have opened up a steady lead after the events of the past few months. As Trump's approval ratings continue to slide, supporters of Democratic candidates who were deemed less electable in the primaries might justifiably feel in retrospect that 2020 may well turn out to be a missed opportunity. Perhaps the party could have taken the additional risk associated with a non-white-male or more left-wing nominee while still retaining a good chance of victory.
Because we lack access to the parallel universes in which other nominees were chosen, it's impossible to completely settle the electability debate. However, enough evidence now exists to shed light on two claims made by some advocates of non-Biden candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries. One is that there are so few remaining swing voters in our current age of rampant polarization that mobilization of the party base is more productive than trying to achieve a broader appeal, and the other is that a Biden nomination would not excite enough voters on the left to stimulate this necessary mobilization.
Both of these claims have already been contradicted by the polls. Biden wouldn't have pulled into the strong lead he now holds if he weren't drawing significant support from previous Republican voters. (According to recent surveys by the New York Times, 14 percent of battleground state residents who supported Trump in 2016 are not supporting him in 2020.) After years of media stories about Trump’s skill in stoking the passionate devotion of his own party, the last few months have forced a widespread journalistic rediscovery of the importance of swing voters and the danger of Trump's declining popularity among this still-pivotal bloc. And while Biden himself doesn't inspire as much personal enthusiasm among Democrats as Trump does among many Republicans, overall levels of interest in the election are equal across party lines: Democratic voters are as motivated to vote against the president as Republicans are to vote for him.
There are still four months to go in the campaign, which is still plenty of time for the prevailing dynamic to change. Republicans have become concerned that Biden's status as a elderly white man who isn't a socialist means that the familiar playbook of accusing Democrats of supporting left-wing extremism or revolutionary social change won't work as well against him as it would have against other potential nominees. But Biden's to-be-announced running mate will be a woman, probably a woman of color, and quite possibly a woman of color with a more liberal record than his. It's likely that she will wind up serving as the target of these attacks, with Biden himself portrayed by the Trump campaign as too hapless and mentally impaired to prevent her from imposing her "radical" agenda on the nation if elected. Just because Biden won the Democratic nomination by promising to transcend divisions of race, gender, and ideology doesn't mean that the fall campaign won't once again be dominated by these highly-charged subjects.