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Peter Henne

Peter Henne

Posted: November 6, 2009 12:40 AM

Enough with the Electability Test

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On Tuesday, November 03, 2009, Virginia Democrats (including myself) voting in the gubernatorial election shouldered the heavy burden of insuring President Obama's agenda against a persistent conservative onslaught. And, with Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds' landslide loss, we awoke the next day feeling like we had let our fellow Democrats down. A lackluster campaign by a less-than-engaging candidate doomed us to four years of rule by a man whose Masters' thesis focused on the threat posed by working women. So this is partly self-serving, an appeal to forgiveness for failing to keep Virginia blue. But it's also an explanation and a call for action; as long as Democrats have a false "electability test" in our primaries--which favors sub-par candidates who appear marketable--we will continually be disappointed.

This "electability test" was apparent in the 2009 Virginia primary. The other Democratic candidates for Governor were Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe. Moran was a long-time member of the Virginia House of Delegates; he had ties in populous Northern Virginia and received numerous endorsements from the State Democratic Party. McAuliffe, in turn, was Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign manager and former Democratic National Committee chair. The primary reason Moran failed to gain the nomination was due to the perception that he was "too liberal" for a statewide race. Similarly, McAuliffe was rejected for his ties to the national Democratic Party.

Deeds, in contrast, was seen as a safe bet. He is a moderate Democrat with a Southern twang, who would be seen as authentic by Virginia voters outside of the blue island of Northern Virginia. The apparent electability of Deeds led many observers, such as Stuart Rothenberg, to declare Virginia Democrats' choice a smart one.

The wisdom (or lack thereof) of this choice soon became apparent. Deeds struggled with his campaign throughout the summer, failing to connect with voters. He attempted to distance himself from President Obama, going so far as to blame the national party's "agenda" for his campaign struggles. Moreover, his campaign focused on attacking McDonnell's Masters' thesis, the negative tone of which proved counterproductive. This culminated in a Washington Post story in late October, which reported that the White House had become frustrated with Deeds' flawed strategy and refusal to accept campaign advice. It came as little surprise, then, when McDonnell handily beat Deeds.

This "electability test" is a common feature of Democratic primaries, and has a damaging effect on political discourse and ultimate electoral success. A focus on how electable a candidate may be substitutes shallow metrics of marketability for genuine political skill. While occasionally a politician comes along who is both "authentic" and a formidable campaigner (Bill Clinton comes to mind), the former does not necessarily imply the latter. Moreover, the "electability test" distracts Democrats from debating the issues and formulating progressive solutions to the nation's problems. Instead of choosing the candidate who best represents Democratic ideals, values and policy stances become tangential to the marketing strategy.

It is useful to compare this to the 2008 Presidential primary. Some questions arose concerning Obama's appeal beyond the Democratic base. These electability questions, though, ultimately proved secondary to substantive political issues. This allowed for a useful debate among Democrats over the proper course for the party, massive turnout among Democratic voters and an eventual stunning victory.

This criticism of the "electability test" should not be confused with a call for an ideological litmus test, however. The problem with the Virginia primary was not that Democrats nominated a moderate Democrat. One of the reasons the Democratic Party has done so well in the past few elections is its embrace of ideological diversity, making room for moderate candidates who will attract independents and dissatisfied Republicans. The problem is that Virginia Democrats nominated Deeds not because of the power of his ideals, but his presumed electoral appeal.

Democrats should want to appeal to independents and rural voters. But this cannot be accomplished by sacrificing progressive values for the sake of a seemingly marketable candidate. More importantly, it cannot occur through the selection of candidates on the basis of whether or not they seem likely to win in the general election. The "electability test" is supposed to uncover the "authentic" candidate, one who will connect with voters. Unfortunately, authenticity is inextricably tied to the other two aspects of electoral appeal, political skill and conviction. Primary voters should focus on all three of these, not just the first. Until Democrats jettison the "electability test" in their primaries, we will awake to future mornings as sad as Wednesday, November 4, 2009.


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