At Houston debate, electability is on center stage

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As 10 Democratic candidates prepare to descend on the debate stage in Houston on Thursday, all eyes will be on the center of the stage, where former Vice President Joe Biden will be flanked by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. At long last, the seemingly never-ending electability debate will finally be live and direct.

If you’ve even been casually following the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination you’ve likely heard, over and over, that Joe Biden is the frontrunner because he’s the most electable. The argument is that Biden presents Democrats’ best bet to defeat Trump in the general election.

While polling thus far has largely validated that theory—Biden is consistently in first place and the only candidate to top 30% support nationally— it has also become clear that by combining Warren and Sanders’ support, more Democratic primary voters prefer someone more progressive than the former vice president.

This is where the notion that Biden, and his brand of centrism, is the most electable choice reveals its blind spots. First, despite leading in the polls, Biden suffers from a widely reported enthusiasm problem. Voters are willing to vote for him but not particularly excited to do so. Since he left the White House in early 2017, more progressive candidates have risen to the surface and captured national headlines. 

While Warren and Sanders are currently polling below Biden, their campaigns have attracted the type of fervent support most candidates dream of. While Biden’s theory of the race relies on the nostalgia voters feel for his time as vice president to Barack Obama, the messaging Sanders and Warren are using has been striking a deeper chord with voters, creating a sense that the contrast between them and Biden is the desire to go forward, not back.

And it is that emotional chord that Democratic voters may consider as the primary progresses. The party has has a tendency to outsmart itself in primaries. Since 1972, there have been nine competitive Democratic presidential primaries, and in every one of them, there has been a centrist, establishment favorite. In 1972, 1976 and 2008 those candidates lost their primaries, and in two of those elections, Democrats carried the White House. 

But when you look at the Democratic track record in the years the establishment favorite won, it doesn’t give progressives much to be excited about. In 1984, 1988, and 2004, the Democrats nominated party stalwarts like Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, and John Kerry. Mondale and Dukakis lost in historical blowouts, and while Kerry managed to win more votes and carry more states in 2004, his campaign was bogged down by his attempts at centrism and triangulation. 

If Democrats in 2020 want to resemble years like 2008, when Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and went on to have a strong general election that padded Democratic majorities in Congress, it’s worth considering the candidates around front runner Biden. If Elizabeth Warren continues her strong debate performances, she could begin to steal support away from Biden and compete for frontrunner status. With the size and strength of her operation in Iowa, and a similar foothold that she shares with Sanders in New Hampshire, the first month of primaries could be a long one for the former vice president.  

Photo: Corey Sipkin/AFP/Getty Images

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