In their search for a presidential nominee, Democrats have argued about all manner of things.
They’ve debated “Medicare for All” and a “Green New Deal.” They’ve weighed a wealth tax and free college tuition. They’ve clashed over campaign donations from millionaires.
But their most important dispute isn’t about ideology or policy. It’s about a more elusive quality: electability.
Who is most likely to defeat President Trump in November? Many Democratic voters say that’s their top priority — not whether they agree with a candidate’s positions.
So far, the electability primary has a clear winner: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden’s campaign hasn’t been inspiring or error-free — far from it. He’s clung to first place in national polls, with support from about 28% of Democratic voters, but he’s running behind other candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first votes will be cast.
Nevertheless, when voters are asked who they think is most electable against Trump, Biden wins. Even some voters who prefer other candidates say Biden has the best shot.
In a CNN Poll released last week, 40% of Democrats nationwide said they believe Biden has the best chance of winning a general election, well ahead of his rivals. Other surveys have shown similar results.
Polls like that help explain why Biden, who launched his campaign with a soaring promise to “save the soul of America,” now focuses on a blunter, more practical message.
“We all have big progressive plans,” he said at the Democrats’ debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19. “The question is ... who has the best chance, the most likely chance, of defeating Donald Trump?”
He’s hoping to persuade voters desperate to win in 2020 to back him in the primaries, whether they like his moderate positions or not.
That pitch appears to have helped stabilize Biden’s campaign after a series of gaffes and uninspiring debate performances that sent voters shopping for alternatives.
First, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) rose in the polls, only to fall back to Earth and withdraw from the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also soared, only to lose altitude after unveiling a big, costly proposal for government-run health insurance.
“Warren has fallen because Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, believe she has an electability problem,” Stanford political scientists David Brady and Brett Parker reported last week.
They suggested that Warren’s proposal for a single, government-run health insurance plan cost her some support. Other surveys have found that many voters, including women, fear that female candidates are less electable than men.
Biden turned in his best debate performance of the year the week before Christmas — crisp, combative and gaffe-free. For once, he sounded like Fighting Joe Biden, not Befuddled Joe Biden.
Asked about his earlier promise that Republicans would become more moderate if he were elected — a forecast that seemed out of sync with political reality — he offered a tougher-sounding formula.
“If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate, it’s me — the way they’ve attacked me, my son and my family,” he said. “But the fact is, we have to be able to get things done. And when we can’t convince them, we go out and beat them, like we did in the 2018 election.”
The real world test of electability starts with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. Polls suggest a tight race among Biden, Sanders, Warren and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.
“If (Biden) just finishes close to first in Iowa ... I think that he will be well on his way to being the nominee,” predicts David Axelrod, the former strategist for President Obama. “The danger for him is if he drops to fourth or fifth.”
Biden may get help once the Senate starts President Trump’s impeachment trial, probably in early January. It will tie down Democratic senators in the race, including Warren and Sanders, for weeks.
Trump was impeached for trying to muscle Ukraine into investigating Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who took a lucrative job with a Ukrainian energy company.
House Republicans argued that as vice president, Biden intervened inappropriately in Ukraine to protect his son. Democrats have largely ignored the allegation, which is not supported by evidence.
Biden argues that Trump’s attacks on him prove that he’s the candidate the president fears most. In other words: electability.
Electability is an odd burden for voters to assume. It asks them to guess how millions will vote in November, and how a candidate will perform in a heated showdown with Trump.
“I just try to imagine how each of them would do in a debate against Trump,” a woman in Fort Dodge, Iowa, told me last month.
At the time, Biden was stalled in the polls. I wrote that his caravan felt like a “zombie campaign.” I forgot one thing: Zombies never expire.
None of this means Biden is on his way to the nomination. Iowa caucuses are notoriously unpredictable. And he’s still an imperfect candidate.
But he doesn’t have to be perfect, especially against Trump. Under this year’s rules, he just needs to appear electable.
Doyle McManus is a Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times and director of the journalism program at Georgetown University.
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