Beltway Notions of Electability Are Dead
Standing on Minneapolis’s Boom Island among her supporters, members of the press, and a light snowfall, Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered her much anticipated 2020 presidential campaign announcement last Sunday. Klobuchar, the senior Senator from Minnesota, highlighted her background as a regular citizen from the heartland of America and the oft-idolized Midwest. The Midwest has been the center of presidential elections for decades, and the 2016 campaign specifically saw Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan, and the honorary Midwestern state of Pennsylvania — Klobuchar’s framing in her announcement speech was no mistake. In addition, Klobuchar ensured those attending her campaign launch heard that she was running as someone who is vying to bridge the partisan divide plaguing the nation. A staunch staunch moderate in the Senate, Klobuchar has been labeled an “electable” candidate by many in the media, and mostly for the two reasons stated above. Still, this early support begs us to ask: is the most moderate candidate the one who has the most likelihood of being elected? The result of the 2016 presidential election bears a different conclusion. The “beltway” (as in Interstate 495, which circles Washington, D.C.) pundit class failed to predict that Donald Trump would become President of the United States, and he is far removed from traditional definitions of moderation. The Editorial Board posits that this trend is unlikely to falter this cycle, whether it means a second term of Trump or a new, polar-opposite progressive. In the 2020 presidential election, traditional beltway notions of electability are dead, and Democrats must be prepared to run accordingly.
According to many popular, traditional commentators, the definition of “electability” to coincides with the candidate who is perceived to be the most “moderate” and, perhaps, the most experienced. Amy Klobuchar certainly fits this definition of electability based on her record in the Senate and her experience as a prosecutor. Joe Biden would fill a similar slot if he were to enter the race, and, like Klobuchar, the media view him as electable. The most important candidate of recent memory who seems to defy the modern appeal of traditional “electability,” though, is Hillary Clinton. Clinton was eminently qualified to serve as as the President of the United States, and she held positions that were largely in line with the center of typical American ideology. Despite the press’s view of Clinton as the obvious candidate, she faced an unexpectedly hearty challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders, who described himself as a Democratic-Socialist. Moreover, Clinton lost the 2008 primary to a man who was a virtual unknown in national politics at the time of his announcement. That man, of course, went on to become the 44th President of the United States. Media norms were further shattered with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In all three cases, Clinton, the “electable candidate,” lost or nearly lost to candidates far less middle-of-the-road than her. So why does the media continue to peddle the notion that someone who is electable is someone with the most moderate position, or the most institutional support, or the most experience?
For a class of citizen that seems to be consistently opposed to a border wall, the Washington pundit and consultant conglomerate is shockingly unaware that it has shut itself off within its own border. When one lives in an echo chamber, as many of this arena do, it makes it hard to see that your positions may be flawed. Consultants tell both politicians and pundits that the best way to get elected president is to appeal to moderate voters, those in the center of the political spectrum. This method of appealing to the middle may have worked for Bill Clinton in 1992, but that was almost 30 years ago. President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 and President Trump’s victory in 2016 relied on turning out non-traditional voters, folks who didn’t normally participate on Election Day. While Obama’s and Trump’s coalitions are very different, one common thread was blue-collar workers in — wait for it — the Midwest. What speaks even louder to this phenomenon is looking at voters who cast their ballot for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then voted for his polar opposite, Trump, in 2016. A similar situation can be seen in those who voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primaries and then went on to vote for Trump in the general election. These people were not casting a vote based on who was the most electable, they were casting their votes based on who most catered to their needs and views.
The pundits and consultants assured Clinton that the Democratic firewall would not be broken down by Trump; he was too radical to win. Instead, Clinton focused on siphoning moderate Republicans away in the Sun Belt states, like Texas, which she succeeded in doing, but the amount was not enough to win those states. In contrast, the amount of Midwest blue-collar workers that Trump turned to his side were enough to change the electoral outcome of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020, they cannot simply run on being traditionally “electable.” They must present a clear vision to the Democratic base of minority voters, young voters, and blue-collar workers that will energize them to get out and vote for them. The one ploy which is sure to damn the Democrats to another defeat in 2020 is keeping the status quo.