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Biden v. Bernie: Your ‘electability’ reasoning is almost certainly flawed

Attorney Scott Pilutik wrestles with the news of the day, from a lawyerly perspective…

I’m reluctant to dive into the election debate dumpster fire but here goes anyway. So that you’re aware of my bias, I think Elizabeth Warren would make the best, most effective president. But never mind that because that outcome appears very unrealistic unless she’s on the ticket as Vice President and succeeds to the job (actuarial tables suggest that isn’t crazy). And put aside policy preferences.

Here’s my main point: the conventional wisdom you’re relying on about electability is almost certainly flawed, whether you’re in Sanders’ camp arguing that a Biden ticket would depress turnout, or you’re in Biden’s camp arguing that Sanders is too extreme to get elected and will lose needed centrists.

Wherever I see someone making an argument about electability, it’s almost always the case that that person views their favored candidate as the most electable. “Electability” these days is a proxy for personal preference, relying on a fallacy that the country largely agrees with you, and you’re always the most reasonable person in the room, right?


To be sure, both conventional wisdom takes have some merit — there are constituencies who will be less of a factor if Biden or Sanders becomes the nominee, but both takes are offset by mitigating factors. On one side, Sanders likely would bring along more young and first-time voters than Biden, just as Trump did in 2016. On the other, Biden will appeal to genuinely undecideds, who you may think don’t exist but who do, and in frightening numbers. I don’t want to say these things don’t matter, but their effects won’t be dispositive.

But what really offsets conventional wisdom is that the primary driving force for Democrats is Trump himself; his continued occupancy of the White House will guarantee turnout. Look to the various post-2016 special elections and 2018 midterms, where Democrats over-performed by up to 20 points. Look to yesterday’s turnout numbers, never mind who they voted for. These elections have largely been referendums on Trump without his even being on the ballot.

So yes, Biden is old and gaffe-prone, but that much was evident before yesterday and many still showed up and voted for him (in some part, no doubt, because they’ve internalized “electability” narratives). And yes, Sanders, also quite old and only recently suffering a heart heart, is farther to the left than most Americans would describe themselves, despite that his policies (putting aside their viability) would benefit the vast majority of the electorate, which perhaps would become clear to potential voters over the course of a general election campaign.

I think Americans by and large have out-thought themselves by using electability as a basis for voting preference — I think we’d be better off if we just engaged on the issues and let the issues drive which candidate we ultimately chose. But the fact that electability has emerged as such a primal, fearful force, is indicative that Democrats will turnout in November regardless of whether that candidate seems “unelectable” right now.

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