The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A wake-up call for Democrats

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration on Friday in Des Moines. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Electability is not defined by race or gender. Barack Obama won the presidency. Dozens of women won House seats in swing districts in 2018. This does not mean that all candidates are equally electable. Some are too ideologically extreme; others do not connect emotionally with voters. Simply put, there are good candidates and poor ones, and President Trump is not so unpopular that Democrats have the luxury of nominating a poor one.

The New York Times has released a set of state polls that should serve as a flashing red light:

Across the six closest states that went Republican in 2016, [Trump] trails Joe Biden by an average of two points among registered voters but stays within the margin of error.
Mr. Trump leads Elizabeth Warren by two points among registered voters, the same margin as his win over Hillary Clinton in these states three years ago.
The poll showed Bernie Sanders deadlocked with the president among registered voters, but trailing among likely voters.

Even a year in advance, that should be a sobering reminder that Warren is a much bigger risk for Democrats (and the survival of our democracy) than is Biden. There may be candidates who could, if they managed to rise to the top of the Democratic polls and win nomination, be as competitive as Biden, but Warren and Sanders fail to attract a chunk of voters that Biden grabs, and by the way they are campaigning, they are unlikely to remedy that deficit.

Mr. Biden holds the edge among both registered voters and likely voters, and even among those who cast a ballot in 2016. He has a lead of 55 percent to 22 percent among voters who say they supported minor-party candidates. ... It comes on top of a slight shift — just two points in Mr. Biden’s favor — among those who say they voted for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, lose a sliver of Mrs. Clinton’s vote and make fewer inroads among Mr. Trump’s supporters.

Who supports Biden but not Warren? Nearly three-quarters of such voters say that “they would prefer a Democrat who promises to find common ground with Republicans over one who promises to fight for a bold progressive agenda. Of voters who support Mr. Biden but not Ms. Warren, 52 percent agree with the statement that Ms. Warren is too far to the left for them to feel comfortable supporting her for president, while 26 percent disagree.”

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They sound like a lot of NeverTrump Republicans and moderate independents:

The Biden voters who say Ms. Warren is too far to the left are relatively well educated and disproportionately reside in precincts that flipped from Mitt Romney in 2012 to Mrs. Clinton four years later. They oppose single-payer health care or free college, and they support the Republicans’ 2017 tax law. They are not natural Democratic voters: 41 percent consider themselves conservative; 20 percent say they’re Republican; 33 percent supported Mr. Trump or [Gary] Johnson in 2016.

Warren is running by spurning even moderate Democrats, promising to “fight” rather than compromise and insisting (along with Sanders) on the most radical health-care plan ever proposed by a major-party nominee. In making herself the champion of progressives and showing disdain for those who favor incremental change, she is turning off precisely the voters she would need in precisely the states that matter.

Moreover, the very things central to Warren’s brand — “big, structural change” — are the things that prevent her from getting those Biden-but-not-Warren voters. It won’t be easy for her to shed that brand in the general election. Drawing a four-hour selfie line in New York does not equate to winning Michigan.

Columnist George F. Will criticizes Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren for her pitch on how to get money out of politics. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is not to say Biden is the only nominee who might attract these voters. It is possible that a candidate might emerge who could overwhelm Trump turnout in swing states by pumping up turnout among nonwhite or young voters. (However, Warren does not have a whole lot of appeal with African American voters, and her supporters tend to be older than, say, Sanders voters.) And, there is every reason to believe that a candidate who does not favor a single-payer health-care plan or free college but who can beat Biden in the primary might do just as well as Biden in key states. A super-progressive nominee who relies on super-progressive white voters, however, is not a profile of a victorious candidate in the upper Midwest states.

The Twitter universe rooting Warren on, insisting that her Medicare-for-all plan is realistic and doable, does not reflect the voters essential to Democrats’ victory. Twitter users (younger, more ideological, more politically obsessed) indeed are opposite of the swing voters whom Biden can attract but Warren cannot.

A timely reminder that state polls differ dramatically from national polls should inform Democratic primary voters. Democrats cannot nominate a candidate with less appeal than Clinton in key swing states, or they will lose. Period.

Read more:

Helaine Olen: Fantasy politics for Democratic moderates

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Sanders and Warren are widening the Democratic Party’s left lane

Jennifer Rubin: How moderates can emerge from the shadows

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats don’t need a left-wing nominee to turn out the base

Cenk Uygur: Brace for impact, Washington. Progressives are going to win.

Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson: Don’t let progressives fool you. Moderate Democrats can win.