I mentioned this clip in a post this morning but reading about it is one thing and watching it is another. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitch based on “electability” quite this naked — or depressing — certainly not in a field as big as the one Biden’s facing. Hillary made an electability pitch against Bernie in 2016 but that was a binary choice for voters and her opponent was a self-proclaimed socialist. It would have been malpractice not to highlight his radicalism as a strike against him.
By contrast, Jill Biden isn’t even making a point about radicalism in the clip below. She’s not claiming that the rest of this year’s field in its entirety is too far out on the fringe. How could she, really, when candidates like Amy Klobuchar are still hanging around?
Rather her point is this simple: At this particular moment in time, 14 months out from the election and seven months out from Super Tuesday, Joe polls better against Trump than anyone else. Ergo, he should be nominated. That’s all there is to her pitch.
What if Warren’s ascendance continues and she starts polling better against Trump? What’s left of the case for Biden?
Jonathan Bernstein wrote about electability yesterday, asking a pertinent question: What the hell is it, exactly? How electable did Hillary turn out to be?
Beyond that, it’s mostly tea leaves. Yes, we can note that (for example) Amy Klobuchar has notably run ahead of other Democrats in Minnesota, and Warren’s election margins aren’t very impressive for a Democrat in Massachusetts. But there’s no way to know if that translates to a general election in other states. People also try to assess whether the candidates have the best personalities and styles for swing states, but that, too, is at best an art and not a science. More likely, it’s just going to reflect what the analyst wants to see.
And that’s why electability is unlikely to determine the nominee, even if voters and party actors claim to care about it. Without clear guideposts, people are likely to decide that the candidate they like for other reasons — policies or personality or governing record or demographics — is probably also the one apt to do best against Trump. In other words, voters and party actors acting as pundits are likely to fall into a version of the pundit’s fallacy: The tendency to conclude that whatever they like is also what’s really popular. To some extent, we’ve already seen this in the polling: As Warren has moved up in horse race polling for the nomination, voters have also started to see her as more electable (and before that, Harris, as Aaron Blake of The Washington Post points out, “got a polling bounce and an electability bounce” after a well-received debate performance).
The “electability” case for Biden could disintegrate literally overnight, aided by one terrible moment for him at the next debate or one great moment for an opponent. It almost disintegrated already, in fact: Kamala Harris’s exchange with Biden on busing at the first debate momentarily knocked him back in polls towards the rest of the field. His electability pitch has survived one near-death experience. Can it survive another?
The most striking part of Jill Biden’s monologue is that it doesn’t even attempt to present her husband as the best candidate on the merits. She frankly acknowledges that members of the audience might reasonably find Joe’s competition “better” on health care or that they might “personally like so and so better” but urges them to suck it up and pull the lever for Mr Electability anyway in the name of victory. The Onion offered this gloss on it:
— Onion Politics (@OnionPolitics) August 20, 2019
Does … does Jill think Joe would make the best president of the group? How could you tell after watching this?