Zesty, Sporty… Electable?
A look at political punditry’s favorite meaningless word.
Field Report, Bryan Collinsworth, June 15, 2006
A look at political punditry’s favorite meaningless word.
By Bryan Collinsworth
As a good American, I’m heartily against censoring the press, but there’s one word I just might be willing to ban as another knock-down, drag-out presidential campaign season approaches: “electability.”
In the 2004 presidential primaries, reporters unceasingly invoked this term with all the zeal of children who had just learned their first swearword. Few articles about the spirited contest for the Democratic nomination survived from opening to closing without at least a paragraph of breathless speculation over whether an electable candidate would be chosen.
And now, a full two and a half years before the next presidential election day, “electability” is already making the rounds again. With each reference from cable news anchors, political pundits, and online commentators comes the chilling reassurance that the chattering classes are gearing up for another round of obsessing over this notion as though it were a key democratic concept dating all the way back to Athens.
The problem is, it’s not. The Oxford English Dictionary contains no record of the word in its modern form, and lest you think OED too passé or snooty for these modern, pop culture-driven times, rest assured that Bill Gates doesn’t think much of it, either: Microsoft Word underlines the term with that annoying red squiggle whenever I type it into my computer.
One needs look no further than the “electability”-happy press, though, to see that this concept is a distinctly modern fad. In fact, its popularity dates precisely to the last presidential primary season. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, The New York Times published 66 articles invoking the term between February 2003 and November 2004; in the entire previous decade, it only published 65. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other major papers show the same exponential surge in use in the same time frame.
A comparison across primary seasons tells the same story. The Times mentioned “electability” in 60 articles from the second half of 2003 through the first half of 2004—roughly the primary season—versus 16 articles during the same period in the previous presidential election cycle. (Some of these pieces were about state and local races, but the point holds.) The Post had 90 “electability” articles in ‘04 versus just 17 in 2000; the L.A. Times, 41 to 14, respectively.
In short, obsessing over “electability” is clearly not a time-honored tradition; at the same time, there’s no denying that it’s the latest craze.
Which is a shame, because the other problem with this term is that it doesn’t really mean anything. At the most basic level, after all, asking "Who is electable?" is really just another way of asking "Who’s going to get elected on election day?" — a question that most of us (save perhaps for the good people over at Fox News) aren’t able to predict with certainty until the voting has actually happened.
And yet, in 2004, poll after poll found Democratic primary voters citing “electability” as their primary reason for choosing the candidates they did. Clearly, they thought the word meant something. The more relevant question, though, is whether anyone knew exactly what that meaning was.
Campaign journalists sure seemed to think they did, given their fixation on the concept. In hindsight, however, their definition of “electability” was little more than a hodgepodge of unexamined assumptions and unquestioned conventional wisdom. Take a classic example from October 2003, in which a New York Times reporter opened an article on “electability” with the observation that candidate Wesley Clark had a “military record” and “compelling presence.”
“In contrast,” the article continued, “Howard Dean has based his candidacy not on electability but on his advocacy of Democratic Party values, an approach that has invigorated dispirited Democrats and drawn thousands of young voters into politics.” Well gosh, if Dean’s approach really was that effective, is there any chance it could have made him … electable?
Not to the Times reporter. The unspoken assumption in this piece, like so many thousands of others during the 2004 races, was that “electability” had nothing to do with galvanizing a progressive base, and everything to do with offering centrist voters a select few attributes that they were supposedly seeking, usually including a military record, reticence to criticize the war in Iraq, and about as much audacity, individuality, and willingness to rock the boat as your average cinder block.
This is not to deny the possibility that this sort of candidate may indeed have been the most electable (though the fact that the candidate who was finally chosen precisely because he fit this “electability” profile was beaten by a man who focused on vigorously appealing to his base seems a bit of a cause for doubt). But the article that never seemed to appear throughout the entire ’04 race was the one explaining how campaign journalists knew with such certainty the specific attributes that general election voters wanted.
By treating “electability” as if it were an established concept, reporters dodged the essential meat of that question. Instead of analyzing polls and voting trends, investigating candidates’ issue stances, or systematically gauging electoral temperament in an effort to determine exactly what constituted “electability” at that particular historical moment, too many journalists simply substituted in an easy set of their own pre-packaged assumptions about what voters wanted and went from there. And voters themselves, for better or worse, followed suit.
Moreover, there was a tinge of cynicism to the entire affair. While the term “electability” may not have sullied the English language much before 2003, the idea of “picking a winner” is a time honored (if not especially reputable) facet of any electoral contest. In the past, however, candidates came to be considered winners when they seemed to embody some broad, sunny, Kennedy- or Reagan-esque combination of all-American charm, charisma, language, and vision. And while general-election viability was indeed a concern raised about both Kennedy and Reagan during the primaries—for being Catholic and divorced, respectively—they still both won.
In 2004, on the other hand, the media was quick to frame “electability” and inspiring character as almost mutually exclusive choices. In typically pessimistic form, a (somewhat sarcastic) “electability” game on Slate.com asked, “Which [Democratic candidate], if nominated, stands the best chance of beating President Bush?” Slate answered: “That depends on which flaws are most damaging.”
Before long, the assumption pervaded amongst pundits and voters alike that finding an electable candidate was an exercise in ruthless pragmatism, not political passion. Any excess of charm, charisma, language or vision would be nothing but a handicap come the final vote.
In the end, of course, we will never know what might have happened if the first talking head to utter the word “electability” in early 2003 had just kept his mouth shut instead. But it is clear, looking back, that the frenzy over this concept contributed little of substance to the electoral process. On the contrary, it needlessly pigeonholed candidates and prevented everyone — contestants, commentators, and voters — from ever getting to the underlying and desperately needed debate about what policies would be most effective for moving America forward through deeply challenging times.
Perhaps most unfortunately, though, the great electability craze of ’04 set us up for an even more outrageous obsession in ’08. This time around, Americans will face hotly contested primaries for both presidential nominations, and already, speculation over who might be most electable is being dumped into the popular discourse like so much sewage.
To avoid sinking any further into electoral farce over the next two years, members of every party need to be prepared to challenge spoon-fed stories from the press about what constitutes “electability” and what does not. And if that doesn’t work, we need to throw out the word altogether and focus on the much deeper policy issues that really matter.