The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Electability has a vital role in presidential primaries

The lessons of Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

“Electability” has emerged as a contentious issue among pundits, party activists and politicos during the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary. Columnists in The Washington Post and other publications have dismissed the concept as a “delusion,” “canard” or “trap.”

Technically, electability simply means an ability (or the perceived ability) of a candidate to win the general election — that is, to earn a majority of the electoral college votes.

But at its heart, “electability” is a strategy employed by the party that prioritizes party victory over any one particular candidate or an ideological agenda. Certain candidates may appeal to particular factions of a party, but not all can deliver enough states to win the White House. An electability strategy assesses the realities of the electoral map, and attempts to put forth a candidate who can deliver the right mix of states and votes that will best assure victory for the party.

This strategy empowers the party structure, of course, and disadvantages those who may seek to upend it. But it has succeeded in putting forth successful candidates during contentious elections. In fact, Abraham Lincoln — arguably the most significant president in our nation’s history — won his party’s nomination and ultimately the White House on the back of his “electability.”

In 1860, Lincoln was relatively unknown to most people in the United States. The presumptive favorite to be the Republican nominee for president was William Seward, a politician with 30 years of government experience.

But Seward, a native New Yorker, was not considered electable by key Republican Party power brokers, most notably Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune and a close ally of Republican and abolitionist leaders. Greeley thought Seward was too radical on slavery and not attractive enough to Western interests.

“An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected,” Greeley wrote in a private letter. “But a Tariff, River and Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free Homestead man may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery.”

Lincoln was such a man. His position on slavery was safe: He argued that the institution could remain in the South but not expand to the West. His Illinois roots and the narrative that he was “born of the log cabin, the rifle, the ax, and the plow” made him a candidate capable of appealing to both Northern and Western constituents. The nomination, Greeley would later say, somewhat obviously, hinged on which candidate “could obtain more electoral votes than any of his competitors.” Lincoln was that candidate.

At the time, the Republican Party was still in its infancy. Formed in 1854 from a mishmash of constituencies and defunct political parties, the Republicans had lost a fierce presidential election in 1856 to the Democratic Party and its candidate, James Buchanan. Four years later, Greeley and others were determined to win. Greeley wrote in that same letter, “Now about the Presidency, I want to succeed this time.”

Success would require appealing to the specific interests of enough groups to fuse a broad coalition: railroad lines for the West, homesteads for the Midwest, tariffs for manufacturers, emancipation for abolitionists. The electability strategy required concessions to crucial blocs of electoral votes — even if it meant passing over an ideological standard-bearer of the party such as Seward.

Not all in the media were convinced by the electability strategy. “The conduct of the Republican Party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller,” the New York Herald wrote following the convention. “They pass over . . . statesmen and . . . take up a fourth-rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar, and who, to raise the wind, delivers his hackneyed, illiterate compositions at $200 a piece.”

Though the “fourth-rate lecturer” received the Republican Party nomination, Lincoln’s victory in the general election was far from a sure thing. He required a number of forces to tilt the race to his favor. New York newspapers and printers launched a massive public relations campaign for Lincoln, who also received a boost from the activism of the Republican Party faithful, including paramilitary clubs of young men wielding capes and torches, called Wide Awakes. And he benefited from a fatally divided Democratic opposition that ran three candidates: Stephen Douglas, John Bell and John Breckenridge.

On election night 1860, the coalition Greeley foresaw gave Lincoln the necessary electoral votes to win. Lincoln swept the populous Northeastern states, carried the Midwest and won California and Oregon. The Lincoln vote was nonexistent in the South (with no secret ballot, voting for Lincoln would have been a life-risking act), and he won only 40 percent of the popular vote. But the electoral college was where it mattered; the electability strategy had triumphed for the Republican Party, even as the results spurred secession from southerners unhappy with the result.

Today, Lincoln’s election may serve as inspiration for lesser-known candidates that they, too, can win the nomination over more experienced party insiders. It also offers a possible blueprint for how to win the presidency: strategic public relations plus zealous activism and a divided opposition. And it illustrates that in tight elections, victory requires the ability to appeal to diverse interests across a big country, through both policy-based and identity-based appeals. Not all candidates have an equal chance of doing that.

Who is deemed “electable” changes over time. Neither a woman nor a minority would have been electable in 1860, while in the past decade voters and party brokers have chosen an African American (Barack Obama) and a woman (Hillary Clinton) as viable and electable presidential nominees. Electable candidates today represent all genders and races, as they rightfully should. The argument against electability in the media is a plea to allow that change to continue to unfold, and to let the primary chips fall where they may without predetermining the outcome.

But for better or worse, when it comes to the high stakes of the presidency, electability is part of the calculus — for political parties and for individual candidates. In a nation as vast and complex as ours, with a wide array of voters who bring a wide array of needs and demands to the voting booth, the principal challenge for a party is to deliver a candidate who can secure enough votes and appeal to the right mix of voters — even if it means passing over ideological standard-bearers or seasoned veterans within the party ranks. These strategic calculations made by the party include assessments of the electorate, the mood of the country, the issues and the opposition. They have been a feature of American politics for more than 150 years. It is not a “canard” or “trap” of American political life. It is part of American political life.

Lincoln’s election shows us that the electability strategy may not, in fact, be a terrible thing. It may even one day save the Union.