Jill Biden, wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, commented Monday that although her husband may not be good enough on certain issues, people ought to vote for him anyway. In an extraordinarily candid set of remarks, first reported by MSNBC, she said, “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election.” She went on to say, “And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘O.K., I sort of personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.” Not only did she reveal that she might be as prone to verbal gaffes as he is (a liability during a general election), she exposed her own uncertainty about her husband’s candidacy.
Jill Biden is reflecting the general agreement among many Democratic voters that Biden is not great, but he is electable. Such a claim may be nothing more than a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy of claiming he is electable, seeing that claim reflected in the polls, and therefore asserting that the original claim holds true.
What if most of Biden’s current support in the polls is coming from Democrats who are simply hedging their bets about his ability to beat Trump? If that is even partly true, voters are setting themselves up for a con game in which they may be their own worst enemies. A recent Washington Post analysis of polls regarding Democratic candidates revealed how complicated it is to try to guess who is more electable. “Biden’s electability numbers are up—and therefore so are his poll numbers,” claims the piece, which then adds, “Or does it go the other direction?”
If this sounds like the same type of pandering to white, middle-aged voters that centrist Democrats love to trot out every election to justify their insipid reformist policies, it is precisely that.
The problem is that voters aren’t particularly good at guessing who is electable. “In late 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama was viewed as much less electable than Hillary Clinton,” The Washington Post reminded its readers. In 2016, voters assumed Clinton was best poised to beat Trump. In both recent cases, the assumptions of electability failed. If Trump managed to win in 2016 by beating Clinton in strategically important states, why would the Democrat most like Clinton (i.e., Biden) have a significantly better shot? Why would Democratic primary voters risk repeating a failed experiment?
Biden’s weakness will be Clinton’s weakness: an inability to express strongly what he stands for and a reliance on the fact that he is not Trump. Trump’s base picked him because they liked what he stood for—racism, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion policies, gun proliferation. He laid out his views clearly, and they picked him without a care about his electability. In fact, Trump was considered the least electable candidate in 2016, possibly even in his own view. Isn’t it fair to assume that in a general election, a nominee’s principles are going to be his or her strongest assets?
Imagine Biden facing Trump in a presidential debate ahead of the general election. Imagine the confident incumbent smirking as he says, “Even your own wife admits your policies aren’t as good on health care as some of the other candidates’ were.” Jill Biden’s tacit admission that her husband stands for nothing much beyond a vague idea of electability could hand the election to Trump.
Even Barack Obama seems to have doubts about Biden’s ability. “Mr. Obama took pains to cast his doubts about the campaign,” says a recent New York Times story detailing the relationship between the two men. The former president is not planning to endorse Biden (or any other candidate) ahead of the primary and has also “hammered away at the need for [Biden’s] campaign to expand his aging inner circle.” So worried is he about Biden’s candidacy that he is apparently warned Biden not to “embarrass himself” or “damage his legacy” during the campaign.
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If Biden’s own wife and his closest former colleague are not giving him a full-throated endorsement, why should voters?
Lately, even mainstream media outlets are pooh-poohing the notion of voters pretending they are election analysts. In a New York Times op-ed titled “Does Anyone Know What Electability Is?” Jonathan Bernstein wrote, “[P]eople … try to assess whether the candidates have the best personalities and styles for swing states, but that, too, is at best an art and not a science.” As Paul Waldman opined in The Washington Post, “[T]he entire enterprise of determining ‘electability’ and then voting not for the person you prefer but the person you think other people will prefer is a terrible mistake.”
There is a reason so many voters are obsessed with the idea of electability, and that is because mainstream media outlets have long measured election races by the same yardstick. Rather than focusing on candidates’ policies and positions on issues, corporate outlets have turned elections into horse races, fixating on who could win, what they need to do in order to win, or why they are likely to lose. It’s no wonder that after years of digesting such analysis, voters now consider themselves experts on electability. We have been trained by pundits to think like pundits. But punditry should have lost credibility in 2008 and 2016.
In 2016, even though Clinton won the popular vote, enough registered Democrats sat out the election in key states to cost her the presidency. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, “Registered voters who identified as Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to stay home.” Is it possible that the Democratic nominee just did not excite her own party’s base enough to turn out the vote and that Trump excited his party’s base disproportionately?
Here’s a novel idea: Voters in the primaries should pick a candidate they truly like, whose policies they are excited about, whose ideas they feel will best help the nation. That strategy may be more likely to result in a Democratic nominee that excites the Democratic base and Democratic-leaning independents in a general election. It is past time to set aside the failed experiment of predicting electability and instead try what has been shown to work: voters leaving punditry to the pundits and behaving like voters instead.