Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's About Electability, Stupid

In the aftermath of Barack Obama's loss to Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary, campaign manager David Plouffe is making the argument that Obama is "uniquely positioned to expand the electoral map in ways that Clinton cannot. That ... will give Democrats more ways to win the presidency."

Clinton's campaign has been selling the electability angle for awhile. But it's becoming more important as the candidates near the finish line in the primaries and a nominee still hasn't been chosen.

Adam Nagourney writes, in the New York Times, that " just when it seemed that the Democratic Party was close to anointing Mr. Obama as its nominee, he lost yet again in a big general election state, dragged down by his weakness among blue-collar voters, older voters and white voters. The composition of Mrs. Clinton’s support -- or, looked at another way, the makeup of voters who have proved reluctant to embrace Mr. Obama -- has Democrats wondering, if not worrying, about what role race may be playing."

I must say that I'm gratified that the campaigns seem to be acknowledging (finally) the matter of electability. That's been my concern from the beginning. It was a big reason why I supported John Edwards for president -- until he dropped out of the race. I felt he was the most electable Democrat.

If you sincerely want change, you have to be electable.

I've been bothered by a kind of pie-in-the-sky attitude I've seen among the Obama supporters that just didn't reflect reality. And I've been concerned that there was an obsession in the Clinton campaign with a (frankly) exaggerated claim of experience that overlooked what Al Gore might call the "inconvenient truth" about presidential politics.

What it's really all about is electability.

Voters have to like you before they're going to vote for you. It's part of the unique relationship that Americans have with their president.

If the voters don't like you, they're going to have to dislike your opponent even more -- or they're going to have to be prepared to hold your opponent accountable for whatever awful circumstances prevail in the land.

In 1968, voters didn't necessarily like Richard Nixon. But they blamed Hubert Humphrey for Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy.

In 2000, surveys showed that more voters would prefer to have a beer with George W. Bush than with Al Gore. Even though Bush didn't win the popular vote, he was electable enough (with the help of the Supremes) to win the Electoral College.

The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate made them feel more threatened. The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate they would trust to make the right decisions about fighting terrorism or invading foreign lands.

The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate would be better equipped to handle a natural disaster or a recession and gas prices of $3.50/gallon or more -- and other scary issues (Sam's Club and Costco announced today that they will limit how much rice customers can purchase because of "recent supply and demand trends." What does that mean? And which presidential candidate is ready to deal with a food shortage crisis -- on top of a fuel crisis and a mortgage crisis?).

The media seem intent on focusing on the "first" angle of the Democratic campaign -- for the first time, a major party will nominate a black or a woman for president.

In my experience, historic "firsts" seldom win presidential elections (and, as a student of history, it seems to me that most of those "firsts" occurred in the early days of the republic, when everything was a "first").

"Firsts" are symbolic, and they serve the purpose of warming up the public for the eventual (usually more acceptable) winner yet to come -- in another election.

They "break the ice," you might say.

There's been a lot of nostalgic talk in this campaign about John F. Kennedy. It's worth remembering that Kennedy wasn't the first Catholic nominated for president, but he was the first one to be elected.

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