The Iowa caucus is next week – the first of many contests that will almost certainly decide the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.
Though in some form, the topic is always a part of the conversations related to that process, the perceived “electability” of the candidates takes an even more prominent role in polling, commentary, and even the tactics used by the campaigns. In this cycle, and in this polarized political environment, one of the main variants of that question of “electability” is the question of who is best suited to take on, and defeat, Donald Trump.
I’ve deliberately avoided making public pronouncements about my preference among the candidates. I won’t do so here. I can find things to like, and to criticize, about every single one of them, including my favorite. Hopefully, I can avoid the appearance of a bias or angering supporters of the candidates during this brief mention of the perceptions of their electoral strength.
Age seems to be a factor in these considerations. Sanders and Biden are supposedly too old. Pete Buttigieg has been attacked as being too young – usually through the euphemism of “inexperienced." Then again, even after a heart attack, recent polling suggests that Sanders has largely overcome that fear among Democratic primary voters, Biden retains his overall lead, and Buttigieg has surged into serious consideration and remained there.
Unfortunately, the issue of gender often becomes involved. Look no further than recent tensions between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders about a conversation that took place long ago and is remembered differently by each of them. It centered on the question of gender and the viability of female presidential candidates, and was the source of controversy before the last debate.
Race is another factor that, inappropriately and often unintentionally, is frequently part of an equation people use to determine whom they believe is most likely to be elected. We’ve seen the unfortunate exits of Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, and Corey Booker based on their inability to “get traction” in the race. Castro had a relatively poor debate performance early on. Harris made missteps in the public relations arena. Booker’s overall campaign seemed to lack a certain vigor.
Each of those is a reason that can be legitimately cited as the cause of failures of those campaigns. But nearly every candidate has been, or could have been, accused of failing to stand out in a debate, standing out for the wrong reasons, not being aggressive enough on the campaign trail, committing a gaffe, having a poorly crafted campaign strategy, or some combination. But those things seem to compound the supposed problems surrounding the “electability” of some candidates more than it does for others.
Whether the issue is race, gender, age, or some other factor there isn’t space to discuss here, an endless series of self-fulfilling prophecies has been created through the overuse, and abuse, of the consideration of “electability.” I’ve had reason to re-evaluate the concept. There are valid and appropriate calculations that can be made – and need to be made – in terms of electability. The overwhelming majority of the times the topic is broached, it is based on legitimate and proper observations, but a vigilance and self-awareness are necessary to avoid having those justifiable and practical considerations becoming informal, hidden, insidious barriers to political participation. Those are the most dangerous types of barriers, as they are much harder to identify and correct. And they lead to the type of patently unfair playing field that we’ve worked so hard to eliminate.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University.