by Ashley Austrew
In January 2019, several big and small name politicians have announced their candidacy for the 2020 presidential election, prompting the rest of us to start the usual pre-election year arguments about which candidate is the most electable.
The word electable seems self-explanatory. Technically, it means “capable of, or having a reasonable chance of being elected.” But, what are we really talking about when we say that someone is electable?
The history of electable
The first recorded use of electable was in the late 1800s, and the idea has been at play in major elections ever since.
For most of history, electability has largely been about perception. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously downplayed the fact that he was paralyzed while on the campaign trail in 1932, using steel braces to support his legs during speeches and forbidding photos of him in a wheelchair or in motion, because he feared it would affect his electability by making him seem sickly or weak. In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was seen as less electable by some because he was Catholic and anti-Catholic prejudice was high. He ended up winning, but it was by one of the closest margins in American election history.
What does being electable mean?
The idea that a candidate is electable ultimately means that they appeal to a large percentage of voters. They hold the “right” positions on the issues, have the “right “qualifications, and, though few of us would admit this is a factor, they look the part. In fact, in the early 2000s, a Princeton psychologist named Alexander Todorov conducted multiple studies to show how our perceptions of people’s physical appearances play into electability. He showed people side-by-side photos of random candidates for the House and Senate from 2000, 2002, and 2004. The candidate that study participants perceived as more capable, based on a snap judgment from looking at a photo, won the election 66–73 percent of the time.
Electability is also about identity, and that creates room for prejudice. A 2016 Pew survey showed that 67 percent of registered Republicans and 65 percent of registered Democrats said it was more important for a candidate to share their positions on the issues than it was for that candidate to be electable. But, that same survey also showed that more than 40 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Muslim candidate, and more than half of Americans said they would be hesitant to vote for someone who does not believe in God. That isn’t agreement “on the issues;” that’s prejudice against certain candidates on the basis of religion.
Racism and electability
Racism unfortunately plays a role in electability as well. The limitations of electability often seem to function as a way of discouraging minority candidates from seeking office on the basis that they “can’t win.” Dr. Adia Winfrey, a former US House candidate in Alabama’s third district, told Refinery29 last year that she got almost no support from state institutions during her campaign because they didn’t believe she could win in her majority-white district. “He told me there’s no point in continuing it [the campaign],” she said of an unnamed Democratic party official. “You can’t win because you’re Black.”
Do electable candidates always win?
Sometimes, even those who do manage to meet the narrow definition of what is considered electable don’t always win.
In 2014, Canadian journalist and activist Andray Domise was considered eminently more electable to the Toronto City Council than his opponent, outgoing Mayor Rob Ford. Less than a year earlier, Ford had admitted to using crack cocaine, throwing the mayoral office into a scandal the likes of which the city had never seen. Canadian reporters repeatedly questioned Ford’s electability, and yet on Election Night, he prevailed over Domise.
Similarly, it was feared that Britian’s Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn would render the entire party unelectable when he took helm, at least in comparison to his fiercest opponent, Andy Burnham. Still, Corbyn won in 2015 and has managed to hold onto the job for more than three years now.
Here in the states, Hillary Clinton was seen by some as one of the most qualified and electable Democratic candidates ever to run for president, yet she lost to Donald Trump, whom many experts called one of the most unelectable candidates ever to run for office. In 2004, John Kerry was thought to be the most electable Democratic candidate in the race, and he lost. The same thing happened with Mitt Romney for the Republicans in 2012.
The idea of electability has been around almost as long as presidential elections themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a metric that needs to stick around. The 2020 election promises to be a contentious race with a large and diverse pool of candidates, and the winner should ultimately be determined by a lot more than just one fickle and subjective adjective.
Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.