top of page

I never want to hear the word "electability" again

Guest post by Leah Allen at The Youth Vote

Three-four weeks ago Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination for President. During the primary race, he was regarded as more "electable" than his fellow candidates, meaning he's more likely to beat Donald Trump this November.

But electability is just a code word. A candidate that is "electible" is usually moderate, traditional, and established. When we vote for candidates based on their electability, we vote for someone who will maintain the status quo instead of a candidate that will fight for the policies we actually want.

Comic of a person putting on a top hat

Catering to Moderates

The Democratic Party has an obsession with flipping voters. They believe if they can convert Republicans and convince moderates, they can get a win. And this strategy isn't necessarily a bad one; in fact, Midwestern swing states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are predicted to turn blue in time for the 2020 election. Even Texas had Biden and Trump neck and neck in the polls, to which Texan political advisor Mark McKinnon said, "Political pigs are flying."

This strategy would make perfect sense if everyone voted. The only way to possibly win would be to either take people from the other side or acquire those who haven't picked a side yet.

But this strategy ignores those who don't vote, giving them more reason to stay in on election day. When candidates that appeal more to moderates or on-the-fence Republicans are deemed "electable," it shows that Democrats don't see any incentive to garner the support of some of their own key bases—in other words, viable candidates are not ones that speak to you.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to successfully energize voters. In fact, this map from 270 To Win shows that in the 2016 election neither side was able to achieve even 30% of eligible votes.

Map showing eligible votes 2016 United States election

270 To Win

This map shows the states where the majority of people did not vote. Most election maps show the tallies of votes cast, but this one shows the votes (or lack thereof) of all eligible voters. If "Did Not Vote" was a candidate in the 2016 election, they'd win by a landslide.

Voter turnout isn't going to improve overnight, but if Democrats gave their key bases—young people, black people, LGBT people, progressives, etc—a reason to get out on election day, they wouldn't have to scrounge for the votes of Republicans and Midwestern moderates.

Missing out on popular ideas

You'd think that if someone was truly electable, they'd support the most popular ideas—ideas like Medicare for All, with a 69 percent approval rating, or marijuana legalization, with a 67 percent approval rating. At the DNC, Bernie Sanders said that "many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered 'radical,' are now mainstream." He was absolutely right, but the person we nominated—the person who is more "electable"—doesn't reflect that fact.

That's because electability thrives on middle-ground. Instead of leaning to one side, the electable candidate will attempt to consolidate two points of view, leading to a policy that doesn't work for either side. It's the worst kind of compromise: both parties had to make concessions but no one gets what they wanted.

It goes back to the catering to Republicans strategy. If the vast majority of Democrats want a certain policy but it's unpopular among Republicans or moderates, the electable candidate will consider it too risky. They can use electability as an excuse to not support "radical" ideas by telling us that they go too far and will be rejected by moderates and Republicans.

But here's the truth: the ideas they tell us are "radical" are also the ideas they consider difficult. When politicians are able to plead electability while supporting middle-of-the-road policies, they're just making their job easier.

The argument against Bernie in the primary was that his policies would alienate the center of the party. By electing Joe Biden, people believed that they could win over the center of the party and still get the Bernie votes.

While that strategy may be working now, Medicare for All and other "radical" policies gain more popularity each day. Eventually, voters will recognize that in order to make sufficient change, we will have to vote in the candidates that are actually willing to do the work.

Maintaining the status quo

The electability argument doesn't always work in the favor of moderates. In fact, it shed doubt on the viability of Barack Obama in 2008. It wasn't because his ideas were radical; it was because many believed America wasn't ready for its first Black president. Of course, America was ready, but we only found out after people had enough faith to vote for him.

Another moderate, Pete Buttigieg, was questioned over electability not only because he would have been the first openly gay man to be elected president, but because he is very young and has never won a statewide election.

During the 2016 election, it was widely contested whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders was more electable. Some believed America wouldn't elect a female president, but others believed America wouldn't elect a Democratic socialist. Since Hillary Clinton went on to win the popular vote, we saw that America was ready for its first female president. As for Bernie Sanders, we'll never know.

Electability isn't just about who can beat the other guy, it's about who America can be comfortable with. And that means all of America, including the parts that are only comfortable with old, white men.

None of this is to say old, white men are inherently bad, but it is to say that "electability" is code for "I'm what you think of when you think politician, and that's not going to change any time soon."

It’s an unfair advantage over non-white and female politicians, and it’s a cycle that we are happy to repeat because we’re terrified of what would happen if we nominated those “nontraditional” politicians and they lost. We might tell ourselves that we'd be fine voting for a Black person or a woman, but we have no faith in our country to do the same. Not enough to justify nominating them, at least.

We certainly shouldn't nominate politicians just because of their race or gender, but right now we're doing the exact opposite. We're too comfortable missing out on accomplished politicians because we're afraid their identity will count against them while simultaneously counting their identity against them.

And what does that get us? More of the same. We're waiting for the moment when America will be ready for a change, but not questioning whether we already are. If we, as Americans, won't vote for these candidates because we're afraid America isn't ready for them, then America will never be ready.

Electability isn’t a real quality

Vision, authenticity, and intelligence are real qualities to look for in a president. Not only is electability completely subjective, it's not something that can even be proven until after an election takes place. And I know the traits I listed are also subjective, but at least you can give examples to show whether a person has them. The only way you can prove someone is electable is by pointing out how many times they've been elected, which, again, is advantageous for the established and older politician. And if they're white men, they were probably able to use electability to get elected in the first place, retroactively proving their electability.

This is what frustrates me about this argument. You won't know who is electable until after the election happens. Politicians who fit the electability image can then claim that they're electable, a sentiment that can't be proved or disproved, to win an election.

But what frustrates me even more is that by basing your vote around electability, you're voting for what you perceive others want instead of for what you want. It's really hard to know what every American wants, but it's way easier to know what you want. If everyone voted for what they wanted, then we'd be closer to the policies I talked about earlier.

Of course, there are ways to know who is more likely to be elected than another candidate. When someone like Joe Exotic, the Tiger King, runs for president, it's reasonable to assume they won't fare well against a politician like Joe Biden. But when there is a stage full of qualified candidates, the only way to tell whether one of them is more electable is by polls that don't show the whole picture or their own inherently biased claims.

Even though it’s fake, I understand why we want to grasp onto electability. We're scared that we might waste our vote and cause a Trump reelection. Electability isn't about inspiration, or policy, or even the candidate, it's about fear.

But a vote for fear is also a vote wasted, because there will be a day where Donald Trump isn't in office. When that day comes, we won't be able to define our party as the one that will beat Trump. We have to define our party as one that can bring change, one where a vote for what you believe in is never a vote wasted.

About the author:

Leah Allen is a student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Soon after graduating high school, she started her blog, The Youth Vote, to practice her writing and discuss her political opinions.


▼▼ Thank you for reading. Please share using the links below. ▼▼

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page