BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Since former Vice President Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy to lead the 2020 Democratic ticket, the big issue has ceased to be healthcare coverage or tax rates or child care or the environment. It isn't even about trust or stature or even charisma. The watchword has been electability.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Well right now what people are thinking about in terms of Joe Biden is electability.
MALE CORRESPONDENT We hear a lot about electability concerns regarding Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Democrats are putting their number one issue as electability. They want to make sure that they can win in 2020.
MALE CORRESPONDENT My focus group doesn't care who the nominee is. They just care about winning. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The wise investment of a vote is hardly a new concept. And it has been fed election cycle after election cycle by the media, who have long since set themselves up as arbiters of electability based on early polling, party support, donor bases and war chest totals. Their determination, however dubious, thereupon governs allocation of press resources. The most supposedly electable candidates getting the most coverage. Thus, as in any horse race, the handicappers influence the betting. But this year a new wrinkle as Chuck Todd hinted at and as the New Republic's Alex Pareene addressed in a recent essay. Voters seem to be increasingly behaving like pundits, subordinating candidates records and positions while themselves trying to divine electability. And what happens? The early polling based on the electability calculus establishes frontrunners and the horse race coverage is more distorted than ever.
ALEX PAREENE What I find interesting is that by the old invisible primary standards, there are a lot of candidates who should be popping, as it were, who should be doing really well who are kind of struggling.
BOB GARFIELD Pareene's essay is titled Democrats Have Created an Electability Monster.
ALEX PAREENE When you talk about who the donors lined up behind or--or who party insiders lined up behind, they lined up very early on a lot of them behind Kamala Harris who had just been struggling in the polls. And when reporters talked to voters, they say, 'oh we love her but we don't think she can win.'
BOB GARFIELD And yet, by all the traditional metrics, she would seem to be a bonafide frontrunner. I mean she is a U.S. Senator, perfect résumé in an old school sort of way. Ex-prosecutor, ex-state attorney general but little traction because those being polled have internalized this question of electability?
ALEX PAREENE What used to happen would be you could sort of tell voters who is electable and, you know, the media had a role in this and the party had a big role in this. They would say, 'look John Kerry is electable and you might like Howard Dean buddy found electable.' And, you know, this was party people saying this and voters sort of internalizing it. What's crazy to me this cycle is that party insiders are trying to tell voters, 'look Kamala Harris is electable,' and they are so shell shocked by Hillary Clinton losing that they're refusing to believe it. And the concept of electability has gotten out of the hands of the people who used to define it.
BOB GARFIELD I just want to make sure I understand this, you believe that voters have heard so much about electability over all this time and were so burned by Hillary Clinton that they are actually making that and not the candidate's own resumé or policy agenda or charisma the basis of their support. They're trying to figure out what other voters are going to think about the race.
ALEX PAREENE Yeah exactly. By you, this has to explain sort of why Joe Biden is doing so well in the polls and why people like Harris are not. And I don't mean to downplay his real support in the party especially among older moderates but we see a lot of, both anecdotally and in polling, you see people telling pollsters and telling reporters, 'look, Joe Biden probably not my first choice but I think he can win.' And they're sort of calculus for this is, 'well, other people will find him agreeable.'.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Eight Florida Democrats most of them still undecided. Why are you already committed to Joe Biden?
MALE CORRESPONDENT First and foremost, I think he can be Donald Trump.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I think that he reflects the values of Democrats enough to get support from all wings of the party.
MALE CORRESPONDENT I think Joe Biden is the only candidate who could really pick up the moderate votes, the votes in the middle. [END CLIP]
ALEX PAREENE Not that, 'I like him the best,' but imagining a sort of theoretical other voter in the future who will like him.
BOB GARFIELD You're describing family feud.
STEVE HARVEY Three pounds, survey says [PING]. Five pounds was the number one answer. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Not what you think is the answer, but what do you think those polled think is the answer.
ALEX PAREENE Yes, exactly. What do you think the studio audience would say? Which candidate would they like the best? Well, I think what they don't realize is enthusiasm for a candidate is what makes a candidate electable. So saying I'm an extremely enthusiastic about Elizabeth Warren but because I'm worried about electability I'm going to go with the person I'm less enthusiastic about, end up nominating someone no one is really that excited for. That is sort of a mistake, I think Democrats have made in the past and they've downplayed it and I feel like they should be worried if they think what is causing Biden to do so well is not actual enthusiasm for him as a candidate. But people who just tell themselves he's the only one who can beat Trump.
BOB GARFIELD Permit me please args to go off on this brief tangent. Once upon a time, there used to be something called disqualifiers. I remember when then presidential hopeful Joe Biden was essentially disqualified when a speech he gave plagiarized a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Well, essentially Biden said, 'everyone does it.'.
JOE BIDEN The notion that every thought or notion or idea, you'd have to go back and find and attribute to someone I think is, quite frankly, ludicrous. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Biden has accumulated any number of negatives. The handsy creepy Joe stuff, the non-apology to Anita Hill for his conduct during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, his Iraq war support, his very long history of gaffes before and during the Obama administration.
JOE BIDEN In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian Americans moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Has Trump embraced the disqualifier factor as a factor?
ALEX PAREENE Yeah I mean he really has but in a way that's almost funny that the lesson taken from it would be that we have to look past the gaffes of Joe Biden and not the, 'we can take a chance on an unlikely candidate.' Right? I would argue Republican voters were told the same electability story as the Democratic ones to where and the election of Trump was them throwing those concerns aside and saying, 'we don't care if the media says that they're unelectable. We really just like him.' And then they won.
BOB GARFIELD What intrigued us about your piece is that it describes an electorate that has been sucked into the very illusion. It's, you know, a more crystalline form of political delusion.
ALEX PAREENE Yes. What is, I think, slightly perverse about it is that voters have trained themselves, in many respects, to act like pundits, deciding not based on their policy preferences or charisma or biography but on sort of these lessons that you might hear on a Sunday morning panel show. And the thing is predictions made on Sunday morning panel shows are not usually very good. Pundits are not very good at their jobs. Having thousands or millions of amateurs trying to perform a job that no one is very good at and using that to decide who they're going to vote for, it does just seem like a very strange recipe.
BOB GARFIELD Now it seems inevitable that if voters are making decisions based on electability, that candidates will stop talking about arcane policy questions and start trumpeting their own electability. Is it happening?
ALEX PAREENE It's definitely happening. Yeah and I think just last weekend Kamala Harris made a point very similar to the one I wrote about and we were just discussing earlier.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS There has been a lot of conversation, by pundits, about the electability and who can speak to the Midwest. [END CLIP]
ALEX PAREENE She was telling an audience like--like, 'look look at my résumé. I'm an extremely mainstream, extremely electable candidate.' You know, there are versions of that argument are made by just about all of them. Even Bernie Sanders hasn't electability argument for himself.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS I can defeat Trump in every poll that I've seen suggests that we are ahead of Trump. [END CLIP]
ALEX PAREENE Some of his supporters will quietly tell you like, 'look, he's an old white guy.' And if you're going to Joe Biden because he's an old white guy other voters will think the same thing. Every campaign has an electable that argument they're trying to make and when they're doing that they're not talking about their program. They're not talking about what they plan to do in office and all these other things.
BOB GARFIELD A lot of the conversation on electability seems to go back to George McGovern and his catastrophic race against Richard Nixon in 1972.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Have you set yourselves up to select a candidate who is necessarily more, maybe, represented by the Democratic base and less electable in a general election. I'm looking at 1972 George McGovern. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Why is it deemed so cautionary?
ALEX PAREENE One answer is that you have a huge number of people in leadership in the Democratic Party who were around for that election and it was the defining political moment, basically, of the beginning of their careers. And but, you know, it's funny because if liberals sort of have been learning that lesson of McGovern over and over and over and over again, conservatives took the exact opposite approach with Goldwater who lost conservatives regrouped, the right regrouped and they built around Goldwater-ism and just ran it again and eventually reshaped the country. So I think some of the lessons of McGovern have been over learned, in part, intentionally to prevent the Democrats from moving too far to the left and in part just because, you know, we're talking about Democrats in power who witnessed Reagan and just thought to themselves, 'we just can't win if we try to run as liberals.'
BOB GARFIELD Does everybody have amnesia. I mean Hillary Clinton was a shoo in, obviously. There's no way a buffoon like Donald Trump could defeat her. She was just far too entrenched.
MALE CORRESPONDENT When it comes to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, many analysts see them as inevitable nominees in the 2016 election. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Trump was unelectable, Obama was unelectable, Jimmy Carter came from nowhere, Harry Truman was the president of the United States and he was deemed an unelectable. It reminds me of the famous William Goldman line about Hollywood tastemakers. Nobody knows anything.
ALEX PAREENE Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD Presidential cycle after presidential cycle, who do we blame for that?
ALEX PAREENE Haha. I mean everyone. I don't know. At the same time you can over interpret the last election and you can forget all the lessons of all the other elections. It is true that no one knows anything, you know, especially people don't know who voters are going to respond to and yet there's an entire industry that has a lot of money riding on hiring people to say, 'I know who voters are going to respond to.' It seems like the best thing to do would just be to, you know, report on the political history and not try to make predictions then report on the candidates, you know their policies and their biographies and things like that. But obviously like what people want to read and what they want to see is who's going to win.
BOB GARFIELD Alex, thank you very much.
ALEX PAREENE Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Alex Pareene is a staff writer with The New Republic. The piece we're talking about is titled 'Democrats Have Created an Electability Monster.'.
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BOB GARFIELD Well that's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by a lot Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin. And our show was edited this week by executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. It is alleged that Brooke Gladstone will be back someday. I'm Bob Garfield.