Sometimes fear is often the best response to danger. Not crippling fear but the sort of fear that generates a pleasurable adrenaline rush that heightens senses and enhances strength, that improves immune response and blocks pain; and that helps you meet deadlines. That is the sort of fear Democrats should be feeling about November 3, 2020.

caricature created by DonkeyHotey (flickr/Creative Commons) – from the Democratic Primary Debate Participants June 27, 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang; and from the Democratic Primary Debate Participants June 26, 2019: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Timothy Ryan, Elizabeth Warren

Unless the Democratic Party, the oldest functioning political party on the planet, manages to select a winning presidential nominee, what’s left of democracy in the United States is doomed to decay to nothing. Give the grotesque creature in the White House another four years and it may be all over for the United States as a liberal democracy capable of managing any its own problems and leading the world. The problem much on the minds of Democrats is how to identify an electable nominee. What is electability anyway?

Right now, there are essentially two schools of thoughts among political operatives. The first is that someone who can animate turnout among the “base” is relatively more electability.

That politically savvy people are answering that question in different ways tells us that it is not be just one thing but instead a bundle of things.

“He’s got the stature, the experience and the knowledge. He meets all the requirements for a president. He’s endured difficult times and weathered personal storms,” is how Georgia State Rep. Calvin Smyre endorsed Vice President Joe Biden (source: AJC.com).

“ ‘Naat’áanii’ is the Navajo word for leader. And a leader advocates, promotes, protects and uplifts his community. Julián Castro is the Naat’áanii for the United States of America,” is how Arizona State Representative Arlando Teller framed his endorsement (source: NewsMaven.io).

“She has the strength and the personality to take on Donald Trump on the debate stage. She has a very balanced approach, and she’s communicating that message really well,” is how Prakash Kopparapu, chair of the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition endorsed Kamala Harris (source: NCBS2Iowa.com).

Where Smyre talks about having a relatable personal story, Teller talks about the ability to transcend specific ethnic identity to unify Americans, and Koppaarapu talks effective messaging, many other observers the calculation comes down to who, “who can motivate the middle-of-the-road voter” (source: Vox.com). Which may mean nothing more the safe bet, the candidate who looks like previous presidents: a standard issue taller than average white male Protestant (Mormon doesn’t count) or Roman Catholic in his 50s or 60s with experience in elective office and/or military service, who is married with children, and has not been credibly accused of sexual misconduct as currently characterized by CNN. The more white bread the better. Projecting humility and affability certainly helps but at the very least an electable candidate should be able to display the appropriate emotional responses to events while on camera. So someone utterly unlike the current occupant of the White House. Think John F. Kennedy.

Only one of the candidates fits the bill completely: Joe Biden. The other roughly twenty candidates fail to meet one or more of the requirements. Beto O’Rourke is too young. Bernie Sanders is Jewish. Elizabeth Warren is a woman. Pete Buttigieg has no children, and like Andrew Yang, is too threateningly smart. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard are all farther from the magic circle. Based on past performance, the field of presidential candidates looks decidedly less crowded. Perhaps it consists of just two or three presidential candidates and a crowded field of potential vice presidential running mates.

The problem lurking in the definition is that electability is about party nominees winning the general election but that it is an appeal made by candidates competing in state and quasi-state (source: Ballotpedia.org) primary and caucus elections. It is in those state contests where the identity politics that simultaneously strengthens and bedevils the Democratic Party is most important.

Far more than the GOP, the Democratic Party represents women and ethnic, racial, religious and gender minorities. Candidates who aren’t among the frontrunners desperately need to attract outsize support from one or more identity groups concentrated or highly mobilized in a particular state primary or caucus election. Yang is more attractive on the West Coast; O’Rourke and Castro in the Southwest; and Booker in the Mid-Atlantic.

Those same concentrations of identity groups could mean Biden may be vulnerable in Michigan because of his Zionism, though neither he nor any other possible Democratic nominee could be as Zionist as Donald Trump. Warren may be vulnerable in Oklahoma or South Dakota because she continues to be accused unfairly as a ‘Pretendian.” Buttigieg is vulnerable in some southern states because he is gay. And on and on.

The problem in campaign appeals to electability is that the electoral college dictates not one but 51 separate elections in the states and the District of Columbia. A nominee might be popular in some of those contests but unpopular in others. Although Donald Trump is doing his best to turn solidly Red States in the Midwest competitive purple by alienating with an unwinnable trade war with China, the electability of a Democratic nominee might still be a function of popularity in a handful of swing states.

Furthering this Electoral College problem, the states which matter most in the primaries tend to hardly matter in the general election. For instance, on the Democratic side, California and New York—two very liberal and diverse states–are crucial to win in a primary. This is why we will undoubtedly see campaign rally after rally held in these two states prior to the nomination. However, in a general election, the states lose their importance because the outcome is already known: Republicans haven’t won New York since 1984; they haven’t won California since 1988. General election swing states, on the other hand, are the opposite. Places like Nevada and North Carolina—two very moderate states–will be relatively neglected in the primary, but will be crucial to win in the general. This can lead to candidates who are popular in New York and California for their further left stances, being nominated and losing those swing states.

As it was in 2016, winning the White House in 2020 will again mean the right sort of people must be persuaded to get out and vote and the wrong sort of people persuaded to stay home in confusion or disgust. The latter task is a particular problem for any Democratic nominee because the gag reflex of most Republicans is obviously weak. This problem comes into acute focus in the case of Hillary Clinton’s crumbled “Blue Wall,” which saw an undervote in Democratic areas, coupled with a surprisingly high number of Obama-Trump voters. This, combined with almost no Romney-Clinton voters, a mythical group of suburban Republicans who would leave their party in protest, proved to be electorally deadly.

If the danger for Democrats is that the candidate who emerges with the nomination is so bruised and scarred that their electability in key states is reduced, what is the appropriate response? The answer we like is to consistently refocus attention on public policy in both primary campaign. Health care and paid parental leave animate voters across identity groups in the Democratic Party. Finance reform and climate change resonate strongly. Americans in and beyond the base are hungrier than ever for national unity, for a sense of the connectedness necessary to tackle our most difficult social issues.

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Image Credit: All of the images used in this story are caricature created by DonkeyHotey (flickr/Creative Commons) – from the Democratic Primary Debate Participants June 27, 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang; and from the Democratic Primary Debate Participants June 26, 2019: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Timothy Ryan, Elizabeth Warren

John Hickman and Matthew Blakely

John Hickman and Matthew Blakely

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.

Matt Blakely is a student at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His majors, and two biggest interests in life, are Political Science and Economics. After his undergraduate studies he hopes to, in some form or another, enter the political arena himself.