(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

If you talk to the reporters who are following Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail, they’ll tell you that, while the race is extremely fluid and voters express interest in lots of the candidates, the one generating the most passionate excitement is unquestionably Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Yet in most polls she comes in second or third, close to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but still well behind Joe Biden.

Why? Here’s a New York Times report that summarizes it well:

Few candidates inspire as much enthusiasm as she does among party voters, too, from the thousands who turned out for her speech at the Iowa State Fair last weekend to the supporters in this western Iowa city who repeat her catchphrases, wear her buttons and describe themselves as dazzled by her intellect and liberal ideas. …

These Democrats worry that her uncompromising liberalism would alienate moderates in battleground states who are otherwise willing to oppose the president. Many fear Ms. Warren’s past claims of Native American ancestry would allow Mr. Trump to drown out her policy message with his attacks and slurs against her. They cite her professorial style and Harvard background to argue that she might struggle to connect with voters from more modest circumstances than hers, even though she grew up in a financially strained home in Oklahoma.

And there are Democrats who, chastened by Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, believe that a woman cannot win in 2020.

What follows are a bunch of quotes from voters attesting to how much they love Warren but worry that other people might not like her. And so we witness the vicious cycle of ”electability,” one almost immune to facts and experience, in which both savvy journalists and ordinary voters convince themselves that general elections are won by candidates who don’t turn off the mythical average voter, achieving that majority appeal that can be heard when the electorate cries as one, “He’s okay, I guess. I mean, could be worse.”

Like President Mitt Romney. Or President John F. Kerry. Or President Al Gore.

Before we go on, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to vote for Warren. Maybe you like her, or maybe you’re more drawn to Biden or Sanders or Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) or somebody else. What I am saying is that the 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 are a whole set of unspoken assumptions at play when we call a particular candidate “electable.” First, we assume that an electable candidate is one who can reach across the middle to persuade not just independents but people who belong to the other party. That leads journalists and pundits — people who are deeply immersed in politics and have a clear understanding of ideological differences — to conclude that ideological moderation is what makes someone electable, as opposed to charisma or persuasive messaging or anything else.

Next, we assume that to be electable, a candidate will have to appeal to a voter with a particular demographic profile. And who is that voter? After the approximately 12 trillion “In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Support Trump” articles that have been published in major news outlets over the past 2½ years, we’ve come to assume that the voters who matter to electability are middle-aged white men in the Midwest. Appeal to them, and you’re electable; if you’re not the type of candidate we think they’ll be attracted to, you must not be.

What nobody suggests is that electability might be a function of getting your own party’s voters excited and engaged. That’s despite the fact that we’ve seen one election after another in recent decades in which a candidate who excited his party defeated a candidate whose own voters were lukewarm about their nominee. Barack Obama was not electable by any of the standards we’re applying to the 2020 candidates, but he won twice, and by substantial margins. Donald Trump was not remotely electable, but he won, too.

As for the idea that a woman can’t be elected, this is reminiscent of the sexism so many women face in so many areas: One woman gets an opportunity, and if she doesn’t succeed, people say, “We tried a woman once — it didn’t work.” And then they go back to hiring just men. The failure of one man isn’t supposed to tell us anything about what other men can do, but one woman’s failure is then a mark against any subsequent women.

And that’s despite the fact that we just had an election in which Democratic women did spectacularly well. As Vox’s Li Zhou points out, “Of the 41 seats that Democrats flipped from red to blue last year, 23 were won by women, many of them in purple districts in states like Iowa and Michigan. Both Senate pickups the party had — in Arizona and Nevada — were also won by women. On top of that, four out of seven gubernatorial flips were won by women.”

Here’s something else that’s particular to Warren: There’s an assumption — again, on the part of both commentators and the voters who get quoted in this kind of story — that when President Trump insults her, it will have some kind of magical power to get people to vote against her, but that assumption doesn’t carry over onto candidates like Biden, at whom Trump is also already throwing personal insults. He’ll do it to whomever the Democratic nominee is, and we have precisely zero evidence that it makes any difference at all.

So if you’re a Democratic primary voter, just vote for the candidate you like! It might seem like a crazy idea, but it’s pretty much the only primary voting strategy that has been proven to work.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Dumping the ‘electability’ canard is liberating

Helaine Olen: Why it’s harder for female presidential candidates to draw support

Paul Waldman: The ‘electability’ claim is swallowing up the Democratic primaries. But it’s nonsense.

Alyssa Rosenberg: I’m grateful for every single woman running for president. Even Marianne Williamson.