What Makes For The Most Electable Democratic Presidential Nominee?
April 12, 2019 – 9:33 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)
We can agree that “electability” is the single most important factor for the Democratic nominee in the 2020 Presidential race to defeat Trump-Pence. But what determines electability? What are the drivers in Presidential races for the Democratic nominee? Mind you, it’s different for the Republican nominee and different for other offices and elections, including those for Vice Presidents, Governors, U.S. Senators and House Representatives, Mayors, state legislations, and other local races. For these positions, a myriad of factors come into play. But somehow the person who is deemed to be the President of the United States is different, and the determinants of who wins and who doesn’t are unique to that one office and unique to each party presenting a Presidential candidate.
Let’s look at the past 70 years of who won the Presidency, and a clear pattern emerges. For Republicans, they simply love older – often much older – conventional, white men who are viewed as well-known and “accomplished” (however the Republicans define that – typically by family, status, longevity in upholding the GOP conservative values, wealth, etc.), and whose message clearly appeals to the right. In recent times, they elected Eisenhower, Nixon (then Ford, but he was an anomaly because of the Nixon resignation), Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush (George W), and Trump. Looking back, they had more in common with each other than with the diverse American population they were meant to represent.
But Democrats are different.
During this same era which was and continues to be heavily dominated by the Republicans noted above, the only Democrats to win the White House were Kennedy (then Johnson, but he was also an anomaly because of the Kennedy assassination), Carter, Clinton (Bill) and Obama. Interesting group, and very different from the Eisenhower to Trump contingent. These four men who managed to win as Democrats were alike in many ways and different from the prevailing GOP fare. Indeed, they were the antithesis of the GOP “standard” (and often their primary opponents in the Democratic party) in five critical ways, where each of these factors is important by itself, but all five together are a necessary intersectionality that produced a Democratic Presidential win each time:
First, they were young at the time of their election, representing the new generation at that time. They brought with them a new generational vision of America and new generational progressive values for America. They were the up-and-coming generational cohort, and youth and vitality were an important appeal that propelled them to capture the hearts of Americans.
Second (listen to this – it’s interesting), they had never run for the office of President in a primary or in a general Presidential election before. They were new on the national scene when they entered the primary for the Democratic party nomination that led to their winning the White House. They started relatively unknown and were each viewed as a fresh face, and quickly captured the imagination of the electorate. They may have lost an election or two previously for state/local positions, but their first attempt at running for President was successful. They were not tainted with the label of “re-tread.” They were new to the national spotlight and captured attention in ways that the “known” candidates did not. Note that none of them had been prior Vice Presidents (so much for that theory!). They came with no national baggage. They may have lacked experience in foreign affairs or other matters, but they were seen as “up-and-comers” and not as “has-beens,” and that propelled them forward.
Third, each one represented some new demographic of the American population that had yet to become President and was questioned at the time. From being Catholic, Southern liberal, or African-American, they were one way or another not the typical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidate from the traditional regions of the U.S. at the time (I was at the 1976 Democratic Convention in NYC which nominated Carter, and part of the excitement was the notion that he represented a “new, progressive South” which was attempting to move beyond its racist past; progressives embraced this idea, although Evangelicals did not; Clinton further represented this value 16 years later). Something was different about them, and they felt that America was ready for change in accepting a new kind of Presidential candidate.
Fourth, each of the candidate’s spouses also stood out with their own agenda for change independent of the candidate, unlike the traditional and quiet GOP or other Democratic contenders’ spouses. The spouse played a role in engendering enthusiasm for the future FLOTUS position and these spouses were an integral part of the election. They added to the campaign in significant ways. Compare Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Melania Trump with Jackie Kennedy, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. These are two very different groups of potential First Spouses during their respective elections.
Finally, each of the candidates was good-looking, calm in demeanor, and exquisitely eloquent. These candidates were charismatic, had a sense of ease about them, were most comfortable speaking publicly and taking questions in stride with a high degree of composure. They had a sense of humor and knew how to use it. They could easily defuse tension, and they didn’t express anger or sarcasm. Their demeanor was uplifting and positive. And they were physically healthy, well-toned and in-shape during their election period. They looked fit, smart, in-command and ready to take on the job as a new President.
They were winners from the get-go as they each embodied youth, freshness, difference, poise and a new national Democratic party. They were the new kids on the block who quickly gained respect and admiration. They stood next to their old and tired Democratic contenders and GOP counterparts and gave America the sense of a new beginning with a vibrant new face. That’s the formula for successful Democrats in the Presidential race.
And yet, we so often forget and allow ourselves to be sidetracked. And for 2020, here we go again with Sanders, Biden and Warren leading the pack. There are many fine qualities among this group, but fundamentally, they are the old guard. They look old, they act old, and the baggage and anger, along with high negatives in their histories that they carry is too much of a burden. If one of them were to obtain the nomination they would most likely lose the election.
Let’s be completely honest – youth and the other factors of freshness and vitality matter for progressive voters, and have for over a half century. I’m not talking about the “youth vote” which Bernie attracted; I’m talking about a youthful candidate who has appeal across all age groups. So, the message to Sanders, Biden and Warren is: please, continue to be fine political leaders and statespeople, but you won’t win in a national election. Progressives don’t vote for “been-there, seen-that” Presidential candidates. Maybe that’s not fair, but it’s true and has been tested for decades. Progressives vote for those who are novel. They want bright-eyed and brand-spanking new (it’s what allowed for the first African-American President; it wasn’t just race; it was also his youth and novelty that propelled Obama to win). It’s what makes those who vote for Democratic Presidential candidates different from Republicans. As Randi Rhodes once said, Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. And those Democratic nominees who lost the Presidential elections – Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton – were all too well known at the time (many had been Vice Presidents and Hillary had been FLOTUS), lacked the charismatic and other optics, and had been around far too long for American to fall in love. They were old family, not lovers.
And that’s why names like Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke and the like are surfacing as serious contenders, with Buttigieg and Harris at the top of this group and both gaining significantly in popularity. It’s remarkable. This is the group of candidates who can win in 2020 and beat Trump-Pence, as they are not the list of standard names of those whose time for running for POTUS has long passed. Just a short time ago, these new names were relative unknowns throughout the nation. They moved from local to national presence in a matter of months, not years.
It’s simple: Republicans want Presidents who are father-figures; Democrats don’t. And the Presidential nominee stands out in American politics as the ONE person who is meant to embody the party’s aspirations. Republicans want to go backwards and want to select a President who is the model of a previous era they admire; Democrats want progress and want to select a President who is the vision of the future they want to see. Democrats can’t win by appealing to a new set of progressive and forward-thinking ideals when their leader presents in all ways – physical, emotional and through language – an image of an old, tired, uninspiring, stiff and angry candidate. The optics are too strong and bespeak anything but a progressive agenda. But when Democrats make the right choices in the primaries, and select the candidate that does give the progressive optics, then Democrats can win; when they try to keep with the old guard, they lose. Let’s face it, the 2016 Democratic primary was about two old white people (albeit one was a woman, but Hillary did not meet the other criteria noted above – although misogyny also played a role in her defeat to Trump), and look how that turned out. Let’s wish Sanders, Biden and Warren all the best and ask them to act as support for a young, fresh face who can win the 2020 election (and thank Hillary for not running again). And let’s get on with nominating the next young, eloquent, Presidential election virgin, a nominee who is a national newbie who reeks of vitality and who can beat Trump-Pence. Mind you, I’m no ageist; I am simply noting the pattern which seems to create a scenario in which the Democratic nominee for President can win.