In Defense of "Electability"

I've been lurking for awhile and have noticed a recurring idea, implicit or explicit, in many posts - "electability." I've seen it most prominently in connection with the Lieutenant Governor's primary, but it's also a big issue (of course) on the national scene. Hence Obama's constant references to his better chances to win the general election. Some people seem to deride the idea at all times, or at least pay it mere lip-service while advocating candidates who have no real chance in the general election, and I think that's foolish.

Look, we all agree, in very general terms, on the progressive agenda we want to advance. Thus the only question is how best to advance that agenda - to get that stuff actually put into law. And while not considering "electability" at all seems noble, we only hurt ourselves in the end if we do so. Structural and institutional considerations matter, whether we want them to or not. We can howl into the wind about that like Lear, but that won't change the fact that those considerations exist in any representative democracy, especially one as large as ours. Only dictatorships, like Stalinesque Russia, have the luxury of such considerations not mattering. In short, until the Internet achieves some sort of amazing complete decentralization of power so that 100% pure ideas can win the day (which is fine by me), it matters whether someone will - actually, for real, not kidding - win the general election in the end.

This isn't all so bad, of course. First, the actual ideas are still the most important thing that makes someone "electable." Think of FDR or JFK (or, ouch, Reagan). You aren't electable by, say, the Dems in the Democratic primary if you don't have great ideas. But, of course, FDR and JFK (and Reagan) were electable because they also had other things. Not just money, although that's important, but connections. And in a representative democracy, connections matter. You have to know people. The Internet is making it more important to know more, "smaller" people, and that's good - and I hope that trend continues - but right now you still have to know other people in power. Finally, personality matters, too, and for good reason. Think again of JFK, LBJ (a great example), and, well, Obama. That's Obama's biggest selling-point now, and if he wins the primary I bet that'll be the biggest reason why.

I'm just not convinced by any of the counter arguments to the electability argument. The only one with teeth is that the electability argument creates an echo chamber in which the candidates first deemed electable become the only electable candidates by self-fulfilling prophecy. I give the voters more credit than that. I think they realize that a small-time candidate with little money and little institutional support just won't be able to win the general election. Because 90% of people don't follow politics until the last few minutes. Because 90% of people only know their candidates from TV. Because, in these days of amazing parity between the two parties, you're not going to convince anyone from the other side to join yours if your candidate is a fringe candidate. In short, I think the primary voters themselves, along and in connection with the media, determine who's "electable." And it's no coincidence that the same traits that are generally deemed to make someone electable are perenially important.

In the end, the question reminds me of a debate I had with a friend about how to best advance the gay rights cause, specifically the push for the recognition of gay marriage - of which we both were fervent supporters. He advocated the full-bore litigation path, to sue in state courts and get states to recognize gay marriage. I thought it was a bad idea given the popular will, it was pushing too much against the majority of people. I thought it wasn't the time for that - we weren't at the Brown v. Board point yet where the courts could counter a small but weak majority and effectively advance the minority progressive cause. That pushing state legislatures was the better option. Looking at what happened in 2004 and the state of state constitutions now, I think I was right. The simple fact is that if you like gay rights, the strategy taken around 2004 backfired. We're worse off now. In short, strategy (or strategery) matters. We have to think.

In any event, this went way longer than I wanted too. I just get frustrated when people ignore electability and criticize others for not doing the same. Interest groups, who work in politics 100% of the time, understand this and often endorse people based in part of electability. I don't know how you can say that's wrong. They're just smart. They're just thinking. They're just using strategy. Individuals should do the same thing. If we don't, more Republicans will win. Things are changing for the better in this arena, in that electability is mattering less and less. And that's a wonderful thing, something almost entirely the result of work by liberals, work that should continue. But we shouldn't ignore the present state of affairs in a quixotic effort to further that work by voting for people who just can't win the general. When that work is done, then we can ignore all the institutional considerations and vote by nothing but our hearts.

Comments

Great first post!

Very glad you shook off your lurker-cloak and shared this with us. Front-paged with pleasure ... a discussion worth having.

The grand irony of course is that it's easy for people like myself (a regular contributor to Democrats) to disregard "electable" candidates who don't inspire passion. The reason they're electable is because so many others say they're electable so often that conventional wisdom grows up around them. But that's the very same reason I use to justify ignoring them when it comes time to open my checkbook.

I'm not saying that's a good thing to do, I'm just pointing out the irony.

I agree to a point.

Electability is something that should be considered - but like Anglico, I often find myself pushing the electability of the idea, rather than the person representing it. I don't have a huge checkbook to open, just a big mouth, so you'll find I'll argue against the inevitable electability of the one who has raised the most money, or the one who has the strongest business connections, and push instead for the one who has progressive ideas that resonate in my soul - which is why I support Dan Besse for LG. Or Pat Smathers, who, while not quite as progressive, has built an impressive grassroots campaign that signifies to me what democracy should be about.

It's why I'm undecided on the Governor's race, because - well, seriously - what difference will it make?

And yes - terrific first post. Welcome - I hope to see more.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi

Shameless

You are completely shameless. :D

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



***************************
Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Kennedy and the electabilty issue

As cautious and often mainstream as JFK could be, progressive activists, not least of all those in the civil rights movement, got behind his presidency and stood with him. Kennedy had enormous electability (it was obvious early in the primary season despite the Catholic issue-- read The Making of the President) and forward thinkers, looking past Kennedy's faults and willingness to sometimes compromise in the face of strong opposition, chose him as their horse to ride into a more progressive era. I'm glad they did.

sorry to say, most folks are more moderate than us

One more thing. I think it necessary to remember that, realistically, we (as in people who harbor the views of the majority of Blue NC bloggers) are a very small portion of the NC electorate. And that most folks are a bit more "moderate". Thus, in my fight to get liberal thinkers in office, i force myself to take into account that my candidates have to be attractive to enough voters in the state to get them in office. Because, lets be honest, i can't change the electorate's core beliefs over night (but over the course of years and decades i can attempt to mold and shape them). So in this effort, I look for the candidates who have the right mix of leftist views and broad attractiveness to get them in office, as symbols of progressiveness and as agents of change "on the inside".

The pursuit of Dulcinea

But we shouldn't ignore the present state of affairs in a quixotic effort to further that work by voting for people who just can't win the general. When that work is done, then we can ignore all the institutional considerations and vote by nothing but our hearts.

may not have been successful, but Don Quixote changed the lives of many people during his quest.

Ideas need support and exposure as much as candidates do, or they can also be lost in obscurity. When I donate time and/or money to a candidate, I'm doing so because of his or her ideas, not because of electability. If they don't make it all the way to the General election and also win, have I wasted that time and money? No, because that person's ideas were in front of the public's eye, if only for a while.

I'm afraid pragmatism has hurt the national Democratic Party in the last few years. Good ideas wallow in Committee, and bad ideas are pushed to the floor and are passed, all in the hopes of achieving some sort of bi-partisan "good vibes". We're throwing war-money at Bush so fast his head is spinning, while he's taking funds away from children, the elderly and veterans.

Change doesn't happen overnight, but it also doesn't happen without a sustained and vigorous push, either.

pragmatic politicians are what saved

the progressive movement in the 90s in both Britain and the U.S. The Democrats and Labour, respectively, had been uncompromising and unattractive during the 80s and they fell out of step with the public. Thank god for "3rd way" candidates like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair* who took progressive ideas out into the light of the mainstream. I'm looking for that this year; Obama appears pretty close, if not better.

*minus his Iraq blunders, he did good things for GB and showed that Labour could be both progressive and popular simultaneously.

Looking at the approval rating of Congress,

it would appear that a healthy chunk of Democrats in this country are not pleased with the pragmatic approach Congress has been taking.

Waiting for a veto-proof super-majority and/or a Democratic President before they act on these things is a huge mistake, as far as I'm concerned. Send Bush the bills and let him veto to his heart's content. Only then will the voting public understand the true differences between the parties, and which one cares the most about the most people.

We're missing out on educating the public in the run up to the election, and I'm worried that voters still won't know what they can expect out of a Democrat (aside from business as usual) when November rolls around.

I agree

that the Congress should not be worrying so much about being "moderate" enough to get re-elected, but should be pressing the issues in Congress.

But i think a stand-off on Iraq-funding would not only be disastrous for the Party but would be bad policy, and morally unsound. To bounce from Iraq just as things seem to be getting better (even this war was shit to begin with and masterfully screwed up in execution) is not a good move. I may be lambasted for saying this on Blue NC but it's may opinion, and many good Democrats' across the country, too. We should not give an inch on Iran, but heading to the exits in Iraq cause a terrible humanitarian disater (possibly worse that Saddam's rule as well as the American occupation up until a few months ago) as well as long-term problems in the region.

Just how much worse a humanitarian disaster

can we make Iraq by leaving? 1 million deaths, 3.7 million refugees because of our occupation there.

And just whose spin do you believe that "things seem to be getting better"? Did it occur to you that we've been lied to before?

where exactly did you get the 1 million number?

I agree that things have gone horrible wrong since the invasion--how could they not have; the whole idea was terribly wrong to begin with. However, violence is reported to be down steeply (and i don't think the media has any reason to lie--they were rabidly against the war this summer and now that Bush and GOP are basically lame ducks, they have no reason to cow-tow to the hawks.)

A county without a working government is a nightmare, and Iraq's (weak but existent) government would run the dangerous risk of falling apart if we leave now. Everyone would grab what power they can and it could turn into a county run basically by warlords (the militias that have some power know could become the sole source of whatever “order” would exist).

I was against the war and still think our occupation is flawed. However, at this point the reports coming from Iraq show a county that is slowly rebuilding. Leaving now would be pulling out the rug. It makes me sick to sound so much like a Republican, and it would make me happier than anything for Bush’s legacy to be one of failure, but in the interest of the Iraqis, the world and the United States I think a complete evacuation of combat troops would be a terrible decision.

Actually, the recent drop in violence

A county without a working government is a nightmare, and Iraq's (weak but existent) government would run the dangerous risk of falling apart if we leave now. Everyone would grab what power they can and it could turn into a county run basically by warlords (the militias that have some power know could become the sole source of whatever “order” would exist).

is attributable (in part) because we've changed the focus of our support from supporting mostly Iraqi government forces to legitimizing/arming local militias and having them police their own areas. Which, in my opinion, is a huge mistake, because we're heading away from building central government control, and merely setting up a bigger and more bloody future civil war.

Practical and straightforward...

and as long as the majority of our electorate remains uninformed, apathetic, and too busy living their lives to really care, then we'll continue to elect folks that, at best, are moderately good choices because they are electable...ie, both concave and convex, ideally suited for both sexes, espousing plaid as their favorite color, and so on.

Me...I agree with sharrison...and whether or not my candidate is "electable" is far less important (to me) than the ideals and policies he or she espouses. One of these days, after the public has finally has it's aggregate face shoved into a bucket of slop and finally realizes what terrible fools they've been, they'll remember those ideas the un-electables were talking about...and wish they'd paid more attention.

Mike McIntyre is obviously electable...and a disaster for this state and our nation and our party. He has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the arena of normal folks lives to even appear to give a shit.

On a national level, it's going to be very interesting to see what happens...assuming Obama wins...if NOTHING get s done. I'd rather say "when" rather than "if" but I don't have a crystal ball...and maybe he isn't all talk. We'll see.

Stan Bozarth

people think

and as long as the majority of our electorate remains uninformed, apathetic, and too busy living their lives to really care, then we'll continue to elect folks that, at best, are moderately good choices because they are electable...ie, both concave and convex, ideally suited for both sexes, espousing plaid as their favorite color, and so on.

I don't think you give folks enough credit. It sounds like you're saying that your truth is the only one that thinking people could accept. Many of the country's politicians do represent their constituents, even if you may not like what those people believe.

The use of political shortcuts by the electorate (e.g. endorsements, opinion of a trusted friend, party affiliation of a candidate, etc) has actually been shown to mimic the way a more informed electorate acts. So it may very well be that people in the U.S are just more conservative than you (and me for that matter), and thus that's the kind of leadership they install in government.

It's good to try to educate them, but it doesn't help if we do it in a condescending manner--that's probably the number one thing people hate about about us. The habit of many liberal democrats to act superior is often a big factor in why we can't get more support for our agenda.

I agree, and I would add

I agree, and I would add that you give folks "too much" credit. From a political science and economics standpoint, the mild version of rational apathy exhibited by most voters is just that...perfectly rational. The interest people like us place in politics is irrational. (There's a lot that goes into that, I know. The act of voting is "irrational," but I do it, for other reasons. "Moral" among them. So I'm not saying people shouldn't pay more attention. Just that I understand why they don't and I don't think that will change absent some cataclysmic event, like, say, a war with a draft or a depression. History bears this out, with some 19th century exceptions.) So I don't begrudge the TV-watchers, many of whom are progressive or could be if easily swayed and talked to the right way. They help decide most elections and primaries, and to reach them you need to be - electable.

Just a couple quick thoughts to both of you...

After doing hours of phone-banking and hearing people say.."Oh, I won't be watching the debate tonight, American Idol is on..." or asking "who else is running...?" and other similar things, I don't think the words apathetic and uninformed are out of line. Nor am I trying to impose my "truth" as the only truth. I respect people who have differing opinions and who can defend their positions with their feelings and their reality...as you have done. That doesn't mean I will agree...but I respect your right to your opinion.

There is only one place I can think of where every dirty trick and every tactic is fair in order to win. It isn't Politics. Winning isn't everything. If one sacrifices his/her integrity to win...or to simply vote for a winner rather than the candidate they truly respect...something is lost. The victory is hollow. It gnaws at one's insides...or ought to.

Stan Bozarth

There is only one place I

There is only one place I can think of where every dirty trick and every tactic is fair in order to win. It isn't Politics. Winning isn't everything. If one sacrifices his/her integrity to win...or to simply vote for a winner rather than the candidate they truly respect...something is lost. The victory is hollow.

I agree 100%. Without integrity, we are nothing. I would never support a candidate who was a dirty trickster--i'm not that type and i could not stomach watching it. We are in the same boat in that respect.

One question: what is the one place where unabashed trickstery is permissible in order to win? i have a feeling you were quite tongue in cheek, but I'm a curious fellow and want to know what the reference was. Sex? War? ...

Well...

I agree that integrity is important, but only because someone without integrity will, in the end, never enact the things he promises and end up instituting harmful policies. As a matter of probability/risk. If that weren't true with a certain candidate, I'd vote for that person! In other words, I'm not sure I care if my candidate subjectively believes in gay marriage if he enacts a nationwide law allowing gay marriage. That is real, substantive *good,* and that matters more than my (or my candidate's) psychic satisfaction. (Of course, I'd be satisfied that millions of gays and lesbians got to marry, so I'd be damn satisfied.) That's what I care about. Put another way, I'd vote for a cyborg without the possibility of integrity if it enacted all my policy preferences.

As I said, of course, in the real world integrity matters. A lot. Especially when it's hard to ferret out certain candidates' policy positions. Integrity, of course, will dictate what actually gets done. But most of the local pols that people on this blog haggle over are all chock full of integrity. The argument is over who's a little more of a "true progressive," etc. There are no frauds here. So integrity means a lot, it's just that most people we're talking about have it.

[On a totally separate note, I am a little disturbed by your suggestion that there's "no truth" and that different people can have "differing opinions" based on "their feelings and their reality." I think I know what you mean - that perspective is important, that certain things can be culturally or individually relative, etc. - but in many circumstances there is "truth." You know, like in science. Even the po-mo's from the mid-to-late 1990s have jumped off that train, as they did in Europe years before! And, of course, even certain moral things I'd say are moral "truths" that I'm willing to export onto other people - no genocide, no slavery, no female circumcision, etc. - regardless of what culture we're talking about. I just don't care that certain African nations do the latter, it's wrong. And don't forget that, when it comes to facts and data, it was Bush's people who famously said "we make our own reality." I'm a proud member of the reality-based community. In any event, I'm not sure you'd disagree with any of this, so I get your point, I think.]

Young voters are the key to a progressive agenda...

If we are ever going to have a progressive movement we need to bring young voters into the political process. By definition, the younger the voter the more progressive their positions.

Obama is recruiting more new young voters than any politician since JFK. That's more important to me than trying to decide the extent of Obama's progressiveness by the footnotes on his policy papers. I give most of the credit to John Edwards, but I believe Clinton or Obama would govern reasonably progressively.

As Atrios says, like it or not we elect our president based upon which one looks the best on teevee.

Getting the young votes

By definition, the younger the voter the more progressive their positions.

What's that quote attributed to Winston Churchill? If you're conservative when you're young, you have no heart; if you're liberal when you're old, you have no brain.

(I don't agree with Churchill, obviously.)

Thank you for your insight, and coming out here!

Electability is so very interesting, isn't it?

Obama? Lets go straight up here. Electability? It would seem within the Democratic party he is doing very well right now.
It would also seem that with the whirlwind of buzz that he has at this time, he is not doing so good and Ms. Clinton is holding her own against the tidal wave of Barak Obama.

Tonight, Virginia, DC and Maryland will lean for Barak Obama and in a big way. But then?

Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and even North Carolina. Lots of delegates there. Mr. Obama is not, at this time, likely to win this nomination. I know. You want it, you need it, you ... will eat worms without it. Do not get cocky. In fact, be totally the opposite right now.

Then the general election, depending on which Democratic Candidate arrives to take on the Republic Candidate. Electability comes with a question mark concerning American Voters.

Be prepared to fight for every vote. Make sure you do.

North Carolina. Turning the South Blue!

North Carolina. Turning the South Blue!

Electability in the North Carolina context

I tend to agree with the electability argument, and I think we all have to put it in a realistic context of the state. North Carolina is one of the unusual, few southern states left where the Democratic Party is still big and powerful; I would even say dominant (especially when you strip away strictly national elections). The only reason that's true is that there are still substantial numbers of white Democrats, and they haven't largely bolted the party as elsewhere. So you have to be realistic when you talk about where the center is, and therefore where the electability is in a platform. We're talking Jim Hunt II and Easley.

I'm from way east of 95; everybody knows Down East is the swing region/power center for the party and winning statewide elections generally. Everybody knows why that is. Unfortunately, when somebody gets unabashedly progressive he or she risks spooking those folks, and the Republicans eek it out. Then you've fought the good fight, but what have you really done? We've already pretty much lost Down East in most national elections, so it's understandable why the party establishment is so cautious. Hopefully the urban growth will eventually plant enough progressive Democrats to more than offset this, but in the mean time it's tricky. The center of the party is definitely moving left, but I think we can get in trouble if we get moving faster than it is.

Everybody knows why that is . . .

Except me. Care to elaborate?

James

PS This is a great comment with good insight for those of us isolated in Chapel Hill. Thanks for posting it.

I may be wrong, but

I believe there's a substantial African-American population down East, even (especially?) in rural areas, with some really strong majorities in many of the districts.

But there's (probably) a high percentage of those folks who are in and out of their church 2-3 times a week, and they might not appreciate the Godless Communist Liberal Heathens (like me) who are trying to take over the Democratic Party.

I have many more answers readily available, some even more tactless and inappropriate as these. Ask and ye shall receive. :)

Anytime anyone asserts that "everybody knows"

I tend to get itchy.

How about explaining what "everybody knows" instead of assuming we're already with you?

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi

Ok, ok I'm backing up

My argument is that Down East traditionally has hugely oversized political clout in the Democratic party, and by extension state government, for the size of its population. I think this is beginning to change, but we'll see. Jim Hunt is from Wilson, Mike Easley is from Nash County, Roy Cooper is from Nash County, Bev Purdue is from New Bern, Marc Basnight is from Manteo, his predecessor as cardinal of the senate was from Nash County (if anyone can call his name I would appreciate it; I can't remember right now).

My other argument is that Democrats very often win statewide elections because a coalition of African Americans and socially conservative white Democrats in the East overwhelm Republican majorities in the suburbs and the ex-urbs. The calculus I always hear is that any Republican needs a margin on election night of (insert a number, sometimes it's 100,000) coming out of Charlotte to offset the East and win.
If you look at electoral maps of the state broken up into county results in gubernatorial and senate elections, it's always one of two things. Either the map is almost completely Democratic outside of a block roughly east of Asheville and west of Charlotte/Winston-Salem (Democrats win the election), or that, plus the Republicans pick up the counties in the southeast and central east (Republicans win the election).

The strong Democratic base in the African American electorate is just like any southern state. For all the Republican talk every few years about breaking this bond, and the Michael Steeles and Ken Blackwells of the world, and the gay-baiting and immigrant-baiting that go along with this, I don't think the African American-Democratic bond is going anywhere. Off the top of my head I think African Americans are about 40% of the population of the East. The difference in North Carolina that creates the crucial Democratic margins Down East is the large number of white Democrats, who have largely disappeared in most other southern states. Without them the Democratic-Republican vote largely divides along racial lines Down East and is about even. That happens in presidential and Senate elections, and we lose.

I think the reasons for this are that the population of East is older than that of the other regions and much more static; tradition is sometimes more important than ideology, issues, or even personalities. I still hear older Democrats talk about people being fooled by Eisenhower. It's not whether someone is a Democrat or not; they ask "how strong of a Democrat is/was he?" The Party matters; it's very Old South. Also, our powerful politicans have always funneled a great deal of money back east, and that's obviously very important for a very poor region of the state.
The last part of it is probably self-reinforcing: if the conservative Democrats Down East stay with the party because they're so often voting for their native sons and daughters, or if so many leading politicans come out of eastern counties because of the political clout the region has. Whatever it is, there's a clear difference in state elections and federal elections; the traditional bond just isn't there in federal elections anymore.

I'm not saying this is somehow ordained or will continue to be the rubric for statewide elections, but I am saying that this is the main reason why the Democratic Party hasn't been beaten into submission in North Carolina like in many southern states. Honestly I think a new urban Democratic swing bloc is going to grow into prominence and diminsh the pull of the east, partly because most urban voters and their officials are sick of us stealing all their road money every budget.

Thank you

Excellent description and clear explanation. I think a lot of us who grew up in NC understand the voting habits/patterns (if we follow politics) of the different areas of the state. That doesn't mean it's easy for us to explain them.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Henson Barnes

n/t

Electability is only as good as the people who decide it

John Kerry was settled upon as the most electable candidate in the 2004 race. He stood for almost nothing, tacked his campaign away from strong stands in order to keep people from hating him. So what did he get? He bored the hell out of us, inspiring no one. Of the nine candidates running that year, he was number seven on my list of attractive candidates, just ahead of Joe Lieberman.

The argument that year was electability, and it failed.

In 1976, a totally unelectable candidate stormed the gates of the party. The author's assertion that "I think they [the voters] realize that a small-time candidate with little money and little institutional support just won't be able to win the general election." doesn't wash in the case of Jimmy Carter.

"After Mr. Carter declared his candidacy on Dec. 12, 1974, a Harris poll listed 35 prospective presidential candidates. Mr. Carter, a one-term Georgia governor, was not among them. Yet 13 months later, after spending day after day traipsing from the Missouri to the Mississippi, he won the Iowa caucuses"

I think electability is a fancy way of saying we ought to let an aristocracy choose our candidates for us. Obama's been campaigning among the power brokers as well as among the people. Hillary Clinton is clearly the most 'electable' by the author's logic - She's got the money, the connections, the name recognition, and lots of ideas. But here comes Barack Obama to challenge the coronation.

Larry Kissell was probably unelectable by the author's standards as well.

Roy Carter, Daniel Johnson, who else is unelectable?

The funny thing is that the author is really just advocating incrementalism, which I'm a strong proponent of as well. Keep things moving in the right direction with the knowledge that you won't get too many big plays.

Electability and its logic, however, will prevent folks from making the big plays when the opportunities arise. That's why Kissell didn't get Rahm's support until too late. That's why better candidates were ejected in favor of John Kerry.

Go with your gut - look at the candidate's organization and see if the person's got the management capability to sustain and grow it. If yes, then electability is something we create, not something that's handed to us by the chattering classes.

Scrutiny Hooligans - http://www.scrutinyhooligans.us

Incrementalism is great - when you're building an organization

but a candidate is not an organization, even though he or she builds one, and we have to be smart enough to get behind one who catches fire, if they have enough fuel to keep that fire burning.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi