The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to rethink electability

Twenty-four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination from file photos. (Reuters)
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We are delighted that so many in the mainstream media finally has figured out that it was moderates, not far-left progressives, who won back the House for Democrats in 2018. They’ve also figured out that a good representative sample of the Democratic Party isn’t found on Twitter.

Perhaps they will also note that moderate female Democrats did especially well. And then, perhaps, pundits will acknowledge that the most effective Democrat, by far, in handling President Trump is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — a center-left leader who is not enamored of impeachment, Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell wrote in 1946. In that vein, the whole “safe white male” notion of electability may be entirely wrong, just as the “all the energy is on the left” talk is baseless (once again, look at November’s midterm results).

And that brings us back to the presidential race. According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, “When asked about the ideal age for a president, most Democrats say they prefer someone in their 40s through their 60s, with nearly half (47%) saying the best age for a president is ‘in their 50s.’ ” Right now, two septuagenarian men (former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders) are leading most polls. Pew, however, finds that “only 3% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say this is the best age range for a president.”

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What’s more, ideological purity might not be way to win the general election, but identity might be. Pew, again, finds: “However, nearly a third of all Democrats (31%) — including 45% of Democratic women ages 18 to 49 — say they would be more [emphasis added] enthusiastic if the party’s nominee were a woman.” As for race, “while relatively small shares of Democrats overall say they would be more enthusiastic if the nominee were black or Hispanic (21% each), more than a third of black Democrats (35%) say they would be more [emphasis added] enthusiastic if the party’s nominee were black, while 44% of Latino Democrats say they would be more enthused by a Hispanic nominee.”

The excuse for going with a white, male nominee is the notion that people out in the heartland — white people who voted for Trump — would feel more comfortable voting for a white male. But is this Democrats’ target audience? If the party’s aims are to mobilize core constituencies (African Americans, Hispanics, young voters), keep disaffected ex-Republican women on their side and not give Trump a big, fat juicy target to shoot at (better yet, find someone to confound him!), then a female candidate might be the more rational choice for Democrats.

Democrats, after, all did succeed in 2018 with a whole lot of women candidates (not only in the House and Senate, including pickups in Nevada and Arizona, but in gubernatorial races, as well) in precisely the same areas (suburbs) and among groups (college-educated women, for example) that will be key to winning in 2020 if Democrats are to retake the White House, keep the House majority and make headway in the Senate.

So how are the female candidates doing in the presidential race? Both Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) of late have been making headway. The Monmouth poll shows, “The six women in the field receive a combined 27% support from Democratic voters. This is a jump from the 16% support they received in April and higher than 21% support in March.” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, explains:

Women are commanding a larger slice of Democratic support than they were a few weeks ago and we are seeing bumps in their individual voter ratings. We can’t parse out the exact reasons from this one poll, but recent efforts by certain states to restrict access to abortion services may be playing a role in the closer look these candidates are getting right now.

And remember all that talk about “likability”? In poll jargon, that’s “favorability,” and the women are hitting their stride:

Warren is known to 88% of Democratic voters. . . . However, she currently receives a +46 net rating of 60% favorable to 14% unfavorable, which is up significantly from her +32 rating in April (51% to 19%). Warren’s gains have come disproportionately from Democratic men (59%-15% in May compared with 46%-25% in April) and non-white voters (53%-12% in May compared with 37%-20% in April).
Harris is known to 82% of Democratic voters, which is consistent with prior polls. She currently receives a +49 net rating of 58% favorable to 9% unfavorable, which is up somewhat from her +40 rating in April (50% to 10%). Harris’ gains have come disproportionately from non-liberals (51%-11% in May compared with 39%-14% in April) and Democrats without a college degree (53%-10% in May compared with 42%-12% in April).
Klobuchar is known to 70% of Democratic voters, which is consistent with polls since her entry into the campaign, although a sizable number (28%) feel they still don’t know enough to give her a rating. However, she currently receives a +22 net rating of 32% favorable to 10% unfavorable, which is up somewhat from her +14 rating in April (27% to 13%). Klobuchar’s gains have come disproportionately from non-white voters (25%-5% in May compared with 15%-10% in April) and college graduates (40%-11% in May compared with 32%-15% in April).

Perhaps when Democrats see these feisty, prepared women (Harris and Klobuchar are in the popular 50- to 59-year old age group), watch them in the Senate carving up male witnesses, see the number of policy proposals they have piled up compared to male contenders and come to see that while Hillary Clinton wasn’t effective in disabling Trump, other women might be uniquely able to do so, they begin to get comfortable with the idea of a female nominee. Perhaps.

We don’t know that this trend will continue or if any woman is going to wind up on the ticket (either the top or bottom). What it does suggest however is that voters are still wrestling with who is “electable” — and may come to a different conclusion than the punditocracy. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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