1972 was an interesting year in the United States. That spring, a break-in at the DNC headquarters received little attention initially and did not stop Richard Nixon from trouncing his Democratic opponent George McGovern as he cruised to reelection in November. A few weeks before Nixon beat McGovern, the Oakland A’s, despite an injury to their best player, slugger Reggie Jackson, won the World Series. Songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” were among the most popular that year. The war in Vietnam continued to drag on, but in February, President Nixon spent a week in China, thus deepening the process that would lead to a normalization of relations between the two countries.
In November, a very competitive US Senate in Delaware race saw Republican J. Caleb Boggs lose a bid for his third term by fewer than 3,200 votes to a 29 year-old Democrat. That campaign is relevant again today because it was the last time Joseph Biden won a competitive election. For incumbents, the best way to ensure reelection is to show enough strength that potentially strong opponents decide not to run. Biden was masterful at this winning reelection to the Senate against weak opposition six times, including in 2008 when he was also running for vice-president. The skills that Biden employed to do that have helped him get out to an early lead in the Democratic primary, but would be completely irrelevant against Donald Trump in a general election.
Many of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination including, for example, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have also faced few competitive elections, but those candidates are not placing the notion of electability at the center of their respective campaigns. It seems like a candidate whose core appeal to voters is that he can win should have won a competitive election at some point since the invention of the cell phone, or for that matter, the invention of call waiting. Similarly, Biden has not won any election on his own since 2008 so his rustiness on the campaign trail, which has already become evident, might just be due to a politician whose framework for campaigning is from another era.
The crux of the electability case for Biden is not solely that he is a great campaigner-few would try to make that argument. Rather, it is one about race, gender and ideology and takes the view that a centrist white male Democrat is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020
The crux of the electability case for Biden is not solely that he is a great campaigner-few would try to make that argument. Rather, it is one about race, gender and ideology and takes the view that a centrist white male Democrat is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020. This is the kind of argument that is intuitively appealing to some, but almost impossible to prove or even test. It also does not stand up well when scrutinized more closely. It is relevant that the last two white male centrist, Democrats the party nominated lost to George W. Bush. However, as recently as 1996 a white male Democrat was elected president. The argument that somehow a woman is less electable than a man in a general election rests on a data point of exactly one, so is essentially an argument based around story telling rather than data or analysis. Believing that Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand or Amy Klobuchar cannot win because Hillary Clinton lost a very close and unusual race in 2016 is impressionistic and anecdotal rather than evidence based in any meaningful way.
Nonetheless, those who believe, despite a paucity of actual evidence, that a white centrist is the best bet to defeat Trump, should take a look at some of the other candidates in the race. Amy Klobuchar has won competitive statewide elections in Minnesota, a state that is now a swing state, has comported herself well on the national stage when given a chance and is clearly smart and experienced enough for the job. For those who insist only a white centrist man can win, John Hickenlooper should be given a longer look. Hickenlooper has won elections in a purple state, as years of executive experience as mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado and before that was a successful businessman.
The argument that somehow a woman is less electable than a man in a general election rests on a data point of exactly one, so is essentially an argument based around story telling rather than data or analysis
Biden certainly has the resume to be president and has a clear appeal to a mostly older, mostly more centrist segment of the Democratic Party. He is, like every Democrat in the race, far more intellectually, temperamentally and ethically suited for the office than the current incumbent, but there are differences between Biden and the other candidates. Biden’s belief in the possibility of cooperation between the two parties, that traditional foreign policy approaches simply need reinvigorating and that economic and other changes should be made slowly, are different than many of the other candidates like Pete Buttigieg who has proposed a battery of reforms to strengthen our democracy, Elizabeth Warren who has a vision for the economy that seems much more grounded in the realities of the 21st century, or Bernie Sanders who is less committed to a broadly interventionist foreign policy. Democratic voters should look at these and other substantive differences when making their decision, but those who simply want to beat Trump should not fall for the Biden electability argument.
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