This meme was a powerful boost to Kerry in 2004, where the "electability" argument carried the day against the more telegenic and dynamic Edwards and the initially more popular Dean. At the time, the argument seemed at least plausible (although those around me rapidly grew tired of my saying "Explain to me why Kerry is the electable one"). The argument ran that Kerry as a decorated veteran, experienced politician, and centrist on policy would carry the general election better than young Edwards or left-wing Dean. Particular among middle class Boomer voters -- who make a big chunk of the Democratic party -- it looked like fielding Dean according to the wishes of the progressive wing would be a reenactment of the McGovern v. Nixon campaign.
Yet the conventional wisdom failed to predict the mood of the country, at a time when Bush's ratings were already slipping. Kerry did not do appreciably better than the Democratic faithful, with the same group of independents and "Regan Democrats" that had rejected Gore also rejecting Kerry.
What is interesting is the return of the "electability" meme in 2008. And this is where it gets positively astounding -- until one considers how democratic politics operate.
I find the idea that Hilary Clinton is the most "electable" candidate rather absurd on its face. Pundits have observed for some time that while Clinton has the greatest name recognition among candidates, she also has the strongest "negatives." That is to say, more people are "Absolutely no way in Hell" about Hilary Clinton than they are about any other candidate. This is particularly true about with Republicans, and even more so with the Evangelicals and "social conservatives" that form the base of the Republican party.
"So what?" I hear you cry. "Those guys will never vote for a Democrat. The real swing is the independents and undecideds." Hilary Clinton supporters will continue to explain that too many of these are "not ready" to vote for a black man for President (although apparently are ready to vote for a white woman) and that Edwards cannot win the support of Democrats to take the nomination. Hence Clinton -- with her greater experience, name recognition, centrist policies, broad base of support, and superior campaign organization -- is the "electable" candidate.
But election dynamics are complicated. For one thing, if you actually were targeting swing voters in Ohio and in southern states like TN, AK, VA, and so forth, polling data consistently shows Edwards as the candidate most likely to "take the South" as the white guy with the economically progressive but moderate social positions. But leave that aside. The real problem for Clinton, and the on the Democratic machine refuses to come to grips with, is the "srtng negatives" on Clinton in the opposition and in the Democratic party.
Lets take the opposition case first. The question is not whether you can get the conservative base to switch sides. The question is whether they are motivated to get out there and give money and show up at the polls. That is what made the difference for Republicans between 2004 and 2006. Rs saw their base demoralized and they did not succeed in getting their people to the polls. Since then, the situation for Rs has become worse. With lackluster support in the base for any of the Republican presidential contenders (although Huckabee may change that), Republicans have been depressed about their chances in '08 for some time.
Which is where Clinton's strng negatives come in. Republican organizers have been quite open in admitting that they expect to do better on fundraising and with their base once Clinton gets the nomination, because she has such strong negatives with the conservative base. While Southern Evangelical Christians in the South may not open their wallets or trek to the polls to vote for Romney or Guliani or McCAin, they will line up in droves to vote for Satan himself against Hilary Clinton.
Meanwhile, if Huckabee wins, matching her against Clinton will be a disaster for the Dems. Huckabee is rapidly emerging as the candidate of the Republican religious right. The Libertarian/fiscal conservative wing of the Republican party may not like him, but if he wins the primary they will turn out and vote for him -- especially if Clinton is running on the Dem ticket. That's the "strong negatives" at work.
By contrast, Obama is unlikely to inspire the same level of fervor among Republican opponents. This is the advantage of being a blank slate. It is very hard for Republican organizers to motivate against Obama, even with rumors that he is really somehow connected to Islam. Part of the problem for Republican operatives hoping to sow such rumors is Oprah. Because Oprah is universally loved even in the hardcore Republican Heartland. And if Oprah tells the housewives of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas that Obama is a good Christian, then all the yappings of O'Reilly and the rest about rumors will fall flatter than a cement pancake.
Now lets talk "strong negatives" in the Democratic party. I've covered this before, so won't go on at length. I will simply observe that the Democratic mainstream continues to believe that, at the end of the day, the progressive wing of the party will fall in line behind the primary winner. After all, that is what happened in '04 and, to some degree, in '06.
Only time will tell if I am right about this, but my feeling continues to be that while mainstream Democrats supporting Clinton will rally behind Obama and Edwards of either of them gets the nod, the converse is not true. It is especially not true of Clinton fails to capture the nomination via the primaries and must rely on a majority of super delegates. Such a maneuver would constitute a disaster for the Democrats, with allegations over a "stolen" nomination and division within the party right before the election.
So where does the idea of "electability" come from? Well, Bob Novak's theory is that it is Clinton agents spreading dirt. While I don't dismiss that out of hand (I know how politics works and how unsubstantiated whispers and rumors can have serious influence), I do not find Novak all that credible a source -- especially when his informants are themselves engaged in such whispers. No, I attribute it primarily to the following.
1) News coverage. There is a serious echo chamber effect, and the more the news report about the "electability" issue, the more it becomes a reality simply by the process of repetition. Or, as Stephen Colbert put it about allegations of Howard Dean's temper, "it no longer needs proof. It's been widely reported. It has become 'fact-esque.'"
2) The curious nature of race and gender politics. What has been very interesting to me is that senior Democratic women and women in the 35-60 age range believe that Clinton will succeed because she faces sexism and will triumph because of it. The presence of sexism makes the fight more imperative. To "show them" that they cannot keep women down. By contrast, senior civil rights leaders support Clinton over Obama precisely because they believe in racism and that this will make Obama ultimately unelectable, because "they aren't ready for a black president."
This is an interesting social phenomenon worthy of its own study. Why the same anticipation of resistance from "others" breads one reaction among women's rights leaders and another among black civil rights leaders. But for now I simply note it and its impact on the perception of "electability" and the Democratic base. As the race and gender issues have played out among those influenced by these concerns, the suspicion that some people will vote against Clinton because she is a woman has increased her level of suport (and therefore her "electability"), while the belief that some people will vote against Obama because he is black has decreased his level of support.
3) Party organization. Party organization still matters in a huge way. And particularly among the ambitious in the party (which is to say, the majority of full-time party operatives, the powerbrokers, and the would be power brokers), there is strong incentive to follow the winner and commit as soon as possible (and win rewards for loyalty thereby). These party leaders in turn influence the rank and file both directly (by pushing for a candidate) and indirectly (because people look to them for validation of opinion).
All of these factors play into each other and re-enforce each other - particularly because there is nothing the candidate can do to address the vague concern that "other people" won't find you a palatable candidate even if "we" are more open minded. On the other hand, because the electability issue is entirely one of perception, it is also maleable. Within the last two weeks, as Iowa remains a toss up and New Hampshire now has become too tight to call, the issue of electability is being re-evaluated. Ultmately, voters will need to decide if electability is the driving factor, and if they are confident enough about it to vote on that basis.