How candidates are expected to fare in November.
November 3rd, 2020.
If you live in the United States and you don’t live under a rock, that date means something to you. To many, it represents an opportunity to restore order and dignity to our country’s politics, and to others, it’s the chance to re-endorse the Trump agenda. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum– November 3rd, 2020 is a significant date.
To a select few, it’s especially important. An eclectic mix of 12 Democrats —Senators, former Congresspeople, Mayors, veterans, prosecutors, a tech executive, and a curveball in the form of a self-help and spirituality author— have already announced their candidacies for president.
The voter’s challenge is to navigate a confusing sea of misleading election cycle propaganda, unfulfillable campaign promises and relentlessly negative headlines to determine who to support for the country’s highest office. It’s a tall order, and it’s early yet, but let’s try to make some sense of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination.
One of the most unfortunate byproducts of our two-party system is that many Democrats will choose their candidate by asking, “Who is most likely to beat Trump in the general election?” rather than, “Who best represents the interests of the Democratic party?”
Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as electability: a loaded word in which misogyny and racism play an infuriating central role.
And yet, the data shows the importance of electability to U.S. voters. In fact, an early February poll from Monmouth University found that over half of respondents would prefer a Democratic candidate that they disagreed with but that would be able to beat Trump. Only about a third of respondents would prefer a candidate that they agreed with but that would have a hard time beating Trump.
Out of the 12 Democratic candidates, only a few will be able to successfully position themselves as the most electable candidate to voters, and it’s possible that the best candidate hasn’t even announced candidacy yet.
So, let’s talk about the five most viable, or “electable” candidates: those with the most realistic chances of running against Trump in 2020, those who genuinely hope to make it to the oval office.
One of the most talked about contenders so far is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. At 69 years old, she defeated an incumbent Republican to earn her seat in the Senate in 2012 after a career as a law professor. Since her name was circulated as a possible candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in the 2016 cycle, she has been actively pursuing and gathering support for the past few years. Because of this, she has the advantages of wide name recognition and a loyal base of supporters. However, her claim to Native American heritage and subsequent release of a DNA test to prove it has drawn persistent criticism, almost reminiscent of the email scandal that followed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 cycle. It’s a sexist take that I regret having to put forward, but Warren’s bio, age, career, and even physical appearance are easy to parallel with Clinton’s – and if Clinton couldn’t beat Trump, then Democrats should look to nominate a decidedly different type of candidate.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was another big name in the last cycle. As the only serious challenger to Clinton’s bid for the nomination in 2016, Sanders has high name recognition and finds much of his support from millennials and those further to the left. With his recent announcement of candidacy, he now seeks to build from the reputation that earned him favor with voters in the 2016 primaries. Given his embrace of the title “democratic socialist” and progressive ideology, though, his challenge will be to build support with moderates and independents in a general election. And while it’s still very early, Sanders seems to fare well in polls that hypothesize a general election between him and Trump; both a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll and recent Monmouth University poll show voters’ high favorability of Sanders.
In fact, the only candidate that fares better than Sanders in polls across the board is former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden is reported to be considering candidacy, but has not announced a campaign yet and it is unclear if he intends to run. With celebrity level name recognition, favorable public impression, and with his appeal to moderates, Biden presents as one of the Democrats’ best hopes when slated against Trump. In the Monmouth poll, Biden easily tops the list of contenders, with an impressive 29 percent saying they would support his nomination for the presidency. A primary appeal estimation map from FiveThirtyEight clearly shows his appeal with party loyalists, but shows that he lacks crucial support from millennial, liberal, and Hispanic and Asian voters. Again, Biden’s candidacy isn’t guaranteed.
With 11 percent of respondents backing her, the Monmouth poll shows California Senator Kamala Harris as having the third most support behind Biden and Sanders. As the daughter of two immigrants and as a young woman of color with an impressive legal and political career, Harris is Trump’s antithesis. However, her attempt to position herself as a “progressive prosecutor” are undercut somewhat by a shoddy track record as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. She faces criticism from within her own party for consistent resistance to criminal justice reform, refusal to support body-worn cameras for police officers in California in 2015, and a red-flag-raising record in wrongful convictions. Her positions have certainly become more progressive in recent years, but this imperfect record is sure to be a major point of contention in any election. On FiveThirtyEight’s primary appeal estimation, though, she earns the broadest support from the various Democratic factions. Her main challenges will be in addressing her record as prosecutor and in distinguishing herself and commanding the media in the crowded field, especially from the other three women Senators running.
Finally, polls say that the fifth most popular figure for the nomination is another yet unannounced candidate: Beto O’Rourke. He established name recognition in his 2018 challenge to Ted Cruz’s Texas senate seat. Though he ultimately lost, O’Rourke’s social media driven grassroots campaign, fueled mostly by smaller donations, broke fundraising records, drew national attention and made him something of a celebrity. His career and background enable him to walk some important lines. First, with a progressive ideology but a Texas upbringing, he is more moderate than representatives from blue states. Secondly, unlike other top contenders for the nomination he is neither “establishment” nor a newbie in politics. Third, FiveThirtyEight’s primary appeal estimation map indicates that he draws enthusiastic support from both millennials and party loyalists, and fourth, the recency of his rise and his young age means that he represents a fresh voice, but he is a white male. In other words, his bio is manipulable and has the potential to be attractive to many – a rare but essential quality in determining electability.
Again, “electability” discriminates: deep-seated cultural stereotypes about men and women indicate—and polls reinforce—that voters believe men are more electable than women.
But then again, Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party and to walk down that road. She charted unknown territory in 2016, and the only way to dismantle those destructive stereotypes is to keep walking that path, and to keep proving the illegitimacy of the norms and societal tethers which systematically deny women and people of color positions of power.
With that in mind, I would suggest, somewhat apologetically, the nomination of the more conventionally electable candidate for 2020. Given the potential consequences of four more years of President Trump, to choose the “safe” candidate may be to ensure the restoration of dignity and rationality to the Oval Office.
So, Democrats have a choice. Elizabeth Warren represents a reliably establishment woman candidate. Bernie Sanders is popular, but his popularity is concentrated such that winning the general election would prove challenging. Joe Biden’s background, name recognition, and favorability rating paint a promising, but perhaps unexciting choice. Kamala Harris is a qualified antithesis of Trump, but her prosecutor background draws concerning criticism from within her own party. And if Beto O’Rourke can capitalize on the momentum and celebrity he built through his highly-publicized Senate campaign, he has the potential to have broad and diverse support that could carry him to the White House.
But it’s a crowded field, it’s early yet, and there is plenty of time for the landscape to be flipped on its head.
November 3rd, 2020.
We have a long road to walk before that day, but mark your calendars. Your future, our future, the United States’ future, and (I’m not being dramatic when
Isabel Brooke is a third-year Philosophy-Religion and Politics double major whose electability is at an all time high.