Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Should you use your head or your heart when picking a presidential nominee?

Michelle Goldberg writes this in the New York Times, after talking with people at a Joe Biden rally in Philadelphia:

“My heart still belongs to Howard Dean because of his passion, but my head says Kerry is the one who can get elected,” a voter told The New York Times in 2004, when Democrats were desperate to unseat George W. Bush. Many Democrats thought that John Kerry, a war hero, could puncture the puffed-up commander-in-chief aura that surrounded Bush, who’d kept himself out of Vietnam. It didn’t work out that way.

Four years later, Democrats decided to follow their hearts and nominate Barack Obama, who spoke to their most sublime hopes for their country. Republicans, meanwhile, went with John McCain, who’d often infuriated the party’s base, but whose campaign emphasized his general election viability. A poll in January 2008 showed that he was seen as the most electable of the Republican candidates, and one of his advertisements claimed that he could “rally the conservative Reagan coalition while appealing to independent voters to win in November.” He picked the risible Sarah Palin as a running mate to whip up energy on the right, but still lost.

By the time of the next presidential cycle, Republicans were even more obsessed with besting Obama, leading them to once again put a premium on electability. “The only reason I’m supporting Romney is because he can win the election,” a conservative voter in Iowa told The Washington Post in 2011. Romney, of course, couldn’t win the election.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a plurality of Republican voters defied the electoral wisdom of party elites, nominating a clownish demagogue who channeled the id of the far right and was supposed to have no chance of victory. We all know what happened next.

Democrats are now in a complicated spot as they make their electoral calculations. If what you care about most is a candidate’s chances next November, then pretending otherwise is an artificial exercise, particularly if it’s just in the service of making a better judgment about electability. And some enthusiasm for Biden is genuine, if not passionate; often, when people I spoke to at the rally described him as “safe,” they meant both as a candidate and as a potential leader. “I don’t want an exciting president,” said Sue Kane, a 58-year-old commercial real estate appraiser. “We have a lot of excitement right now, in a bad way.” . . .

Given the existential stakes in 2020, it’s tempting for Democrats to put their own preferences aside and strike mental bargains with groups of people they may have never met. But being attentive to how candidates make us feel gives us valuable information. . . .

During the 2004 Democratic Convention, I wrote this in an email to my mom, Ann Althouse:
You wrote about how everyone watching the convention is imagining how the speeches will seem to someone else, even though it might be that none of those "someone elses" are actually watching the speeches. The same thing happened when Kerry won the primaries. Everyone was voting for him because they thought he would appeal to someone else. And those voters believed at the time that that was the politically savvy thing to do. But it was actually politically disastrous: if everyone was just voting for him because they thought someone else would like him, then NO ONE ACTUALLY LIKED HIM.

One problem is that if you're trying to choose the most "electable" person, I would imagine that you'd be likely to do it by process of elimination -- by ruling out all the candidates with obvious political liabilities. I think this is the number-one reason why Kerry won the primaries: he was the only candidate who didn't seem to have anything particularly wrong with him. Edwards was too inexperienced; Clark was a poor campaigner; Dean seemed kind of insane; Gephardt was too liberal; Lieberman was too conservative. So they choose the one candidate who has no qualities that would really make anyone hate him. The problem is that he also has no qualities that would really make anyone like him either.