But primary voters often pick candidates with glaring, foreseeable general-election weaknesses over stronger contenders. And in 2020, Democrats are in danger of doing just that. Their top three candidates have real problems. And their potential best performers are stuck in the second tier.
It’s not hard to find examples of parties failing to nominate their most viable candidates. In 2016, both parties blew it.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump deprived his opponents of media oxygen by generating scandals, championed immigration restrictionism and won against a divided field by playing to his blue-collar white base. But his primary strengths were general-election liabilities. Trump generated controversy on a near-daily basis, lost debates and ended up being the least popular candidate in the history of presidential elections. Though Trump won the 2016 election, it wasn’t pretty. He lost the popular vote despite drawing an unpopular opponent and having the deus ex machina of the Comey letter swing late polls in his favor. The 2016 election shouldn’t have been tough for the Republicans, but Trump barely squeaked by. A more conventional politician — such as Marco Rubio, who got more votes in Florida than Trump on Election Day 2016, or Scott Walker, who won in Wisconsin three times — likely would have assembled a larger coalition and actually won the popular vote.
Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination parallels Trump’s. She used her organizational strength, support from Democratic party leaders and early polling lead to scare off other plausible and potentially more electable candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Deval Patrick and Amy Klobuchar, and win as the experienced insider in a contest with insurgent Bernie Sanders.
But the political muscle that allowed her to clear the field was also a problem. Trump portrayed her as a creature of “the swamp.” And she was dogged, fairly or unfairly, by ethical questions about her email servers and other controversies. She ended the election as the second-most unpopular presidential candidate in history and failed to carry the swing states she needed to secure the presidency. Democrats are working with a stronger field than they had in 2016 — there was only one or two truly plausible presidents in that group (Clinton and Sanders), and there are at least half a dozen this time around. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods.
The top three Democratic candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — all have serious liabilities. None of them are particularly young. Sanders, Biden and Warren are 78, 76 and 70 years old, respectively, and many Americans have expressed real discomfort with candidates older than 70. Biden has a treasure trove of baggage from his political past. Warren is far to the left on policy, and candidates who are on the political extremes tend to under-perform in general elections compared with more moderate candidates. Sanders is a self-described Democratic Socialist, and less than half of Americans said they’d vote for a well-qualified candidate from their party who was “a socialist.”
These candidates are all leading Trump in the polls for now (Biden by the largest margin), and Trump is unpopular enough that any one of them would likely start out as the favorite in November. But given the risks inherent in the Democratic poll leaders’ candidacies, if Democrats want to nominate the most electable candidate, they should keep their eyes on the second tier.
The second tier is flush with candidates who have solid electability claims. Klobuchar has posted eye-popping margins in the Midwest, the country’s key swing region. Cory Booker and Kamala D. Harris have focused on building strong ties with black voters and either could reenergize Obama voters who stayed home in 2016 (though testing the waters with the extremely unpopular idea of reparations for slavery might harm them with the broader electorate). I’ve been bearish on Beto O’Rourke since he entered the national political arena, but his almost-victory in Texas in 2018 should count for something. Some of these candidates might have undiscovered skeletons in their closet, but it’s unlikely that all of them do.
Most importantly, Klobuchar, Booker and most of the other second-tier candidates simply lack the big disadvantages that the top three carry with them. If Democrats care about electability as much as they say they do, they ought to give these candidates another look.