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Who is ‘electable’ — and who gets to decide?

Headshots of Donald Trump and Joe Biden side by side.
Are these men electable? In both parties, a significant number of voters have doubts about a rerun of the 2020 campaign between former President Trump and President Biden.
(Associated Press)
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Is President Biden electable? Is Donald Trump?

A lot turns on what voters think about those questions.

The belief that Biden was the most electable candidate was key to his winning the Democratic nomination in 2020. This year, Republicans seeking to undermine Trump’s chances of getting a rematch have also leaned on electability — telling voters that even if they like the former president, they should not renominate a person whom they blame for losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

Electability can be a powerful argument, overriding other criteria, like agreement on ideology. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in February 2020, for example, showed that Democrats, 58%-38%, preferred a candidate who was electable to one who agreed with them on big issues.

But claims about electability may not have the same effect in a Republican primary, recent research indicates. And if that’s the case, Trump might have a clearer shot at the nomination than his rivals hope.

Who’s electable?

“Democrats and Republicans have different calculations about electability,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver who has been studying that question.

Last month, as part of that research, Masket surveyed county-level party chairs in both parties, asking whether they thought it was more important when recruiting candidates to find people who agreed with much of what the party believes or to find those who could win in November.

Democratic party chairs divided closely on that question, Masket found. Republicans, by contrast, heavily favored candidates who shared the party’s views.

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When asked specifically about presidential candidates, the party chairs showed a similar pattern: Democrats overwhelmingly favored finding a presidential nominee they thought could win in November. Republicans narrowly preferred a candidate with whom they agreed on major issues.

The Democratic hyperfocus on electability is a relatively recent thing. In 2008, for example, Democratic voters turned their backs on then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in favor of Sen. Barack Obama, despite Clinton having more of the experience in government and politics that usually argues in favor of electability.

For many years, in fact, a stereotype of the major parties held that Republicans were by far the more pragmatic: “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line,” the saying went.

The new-found emphasis on electability has been controversial among Democrats. Many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont felt that party officials wrongly used arguments about electability to disparage his candidacy in 2016 and again in 2020.

Arguments about electability can be “abused,” Masket noted. “It’s treated as a kind of cudgel for forcing out, or pushing down, candidates who are not moderate, white men.”

In the abstract, he noted, party officials will often say they want to diversify their slate of candidates, but when women or people of color step forward to run, “they’ll say, ‘I’m not sure that candidate can win’ ... even when there’s not a much evidence” to support the skepticism, he said.

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At the same time, there’s a strong argument that the two parties’ differing approaches to electability greatly helped Democrats keep control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm election.

In choosing their 2022 nominees, Democrats continued their pattern of putting a big premium on perceived electability.

Republicans, notably, did not. Party leaders in many cases stayed out of primary contests, deferring to Trump. And primary voters chose a raft of candidates for the Senate and governorships who either had little or no experience running for office or whose views hewed to the far right of the party, or both.

The issue of whether those candidates were electable wasn’t ignored during the primaries; it came up often. In New Hampshire, to take one example, the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, called retired Gen. Don Bolduc “not a serious candidate” for the Senate.

But just as frequently, Republican voters batted aside such concerns. Bolduc won his primary, then went on to prove Sununu correct, losing the general election to incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan by 10 points. The same pattern prevailed in other swing states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, costing the GOP a chance to regain the Senate majority.

The seeming lack of emphasis among Republicans on getting candidates who can prevail in a general election baffles many Democrats, who often ask whether the GOP cares more about ideology than winning.

The issue is more complicated than that.

As Masket notes, both parties’ views are shaped by their recent histories. In 1992, after losing five of the previous six presidential elections, Democrats turned to a moderate candidate, Bill Clinton, to change their party’s image, and they won. In 2020, after the shock of Trump’s victory, “they doubled down on electability” and nominated Biden. And won.

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Republicans had the opposite experience. Conventional wisdom held in 2016 that Trump couldn’t be elected. He won the nomination anyway.

“Republicans sort of blew off electability, and it worked for them,” Masket said.

The factionalism within the Republican Party has also been far more disruptive than among Democrats in recent years, said Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

In 2020, after Biden won the South Carolina primary, three of his rivals dropped out of the race in quick succession, allowing him to rapidly consolidate support.

“We don’t see Republicans doing that,” either in 2016, when rival candidates failed to come up with any joint strategy to defeat Trump, or subsequently, Jackson said.

“The party elites think they’ll lose voters” if they’re seen to be pushing against Trump-affiliated candidates, Jackson noted. “That hurts them in general elections because the Republican primary electorate is looking so far to the right.”

One complicating factor, said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who opposes Trump, is that the former president’s die-hard supporters, who make up somewhere around 30% of the party’s voters, won’t accept the argument that he can’t win because they don’t accept that he ever lost.

“They don’t have the same electability concerns” because “they believe the election was stolen,” she said.

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Nonetheless, she said, concern about electability runs strong among another large swath of GOP voters.

“I hear the electability argument in focus groups all the time,” she said. “When people talk about [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis, they call him Trump without the baggage,” she said. “They think he won’t alienate swing voters” the way Trump does.

“There’s a cohort of Republicans for whom electability is a huge deal,” she added. “The big unknown is whether that cohort is bigger than the ones who are with Trump — ride or die.”

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