With the truth so far off, what good will it do?
If there's a more pointless word in political journalism than "authentic," it must be "electable."
Like "authenticity," "electability" is little more than a catch-all that allows the speaker to express his or her approval for, or disapproval of, a candidate in seemingly definitive terms, based on ... anything at all.
NBC's Tim Russert and Brian Williams provided an example this week. Asked by Williams if Sen. Hillary Clinton "is electable as president," Russert responded by pointing to a Gallup poll that Russert said found her "favorable rating amongst all Americans was 46 percent; her disapproval, 50 percent. So, it would be a very difficult, hotly contested campaign -- winnable -- but no doubt difficult."
Moments earlier, Russert and Williams had been discussing their own network's recent poll. But asked to assess Clinton's "electability," Russert turned to a Gallup poll to ominously note her high disapproval rating -- despite the fact that NBC's own poll included a perfectly legitimate measure of Clinton's "electability": a hypothetical head-to-head general election match-up with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani. According to the NBC poll, Clinton beats Giuliani by five points in such a match-up.
In other words, Russert could just as easily have pointed to a result from his own employer's poll that would have created precisely the opposite impression. And doing so would have presented results every bit as valid as the poll results he did tout. Which suggests that media discussions of "electability" are little more than predictions -- guesses, really -- dressed up as analysis.
Think back to 2000, for example. In its October 16, 2000, issue, Newsweek wondered -- under the heading of "conventional wisdom" -- whether Al Gore was transitioning from "unlikable" to "unelectable." Three weeks later, Gore won. He had gone from teetering on the edge of unelectability -- someone for whom victory is impossible -- to winning more votes than his opponents. (And lest anyone protest that "electable" in presidential politics refers to electoral votes rather than popular votes, keep in mind that for the purposes of this discussion, voter intent is what matters. And a clear plurality of Florida voters walked into their polling place on Election Day intending to vote for Al Gore.)
To be sure, political journalists aren't alone in their obsession with "electability" -- or in their inability to accurately assess it. As late as June 1992, columnist Bob Novak was writing that Democrats were wondering of Bill Clinton, "Why does he seem to be unelectable against a flawed and unpopular Republican incumbent?" Mary McGrory of The Washington Post agreed, writing on June 4, 1992:
The Democrats, having done just what they were told and having gotten just what they wanted -- an early nominee -- are miserable. So is the nominee.
Bill Clinton seemed made to order for a party that kept nominating unelectable liberals. He is not just moderate, he's DLC, which is practically Republican. He's tall, good-looking, good-hearted, a born campaigner, a pet of yuppie journalists. For the most part, he talks in sensible specifics. So how did he disappear in the bright sunlight of California, in the last primary, where he was a victor but not really a player?
No Democrat speaks the dark party doubts about electability out loud. So-called party elders who might suggest another course are inhibited about speaking out. Clinton was at least willing to run. The party's brighter lights refused. Lloyd Bentsen said it was too late; Bill Bradley said it was too early; Mario Cuomo said go away, I'm busy with my budget. Others who might say something are either hoping to be Clinton's vice president or the nominee next time. A great silence prevails; underneath it, a great fear.
The Democrats have realized that while they were looking for a winner, the country was looking for a leader.
But just because "The Democrats" thought it didn't make it true. Clinton, of course, turned out to be quite "electable," winning Electoral College landslides in both 1992 and 1996.
Columnist Mark Shields (inadvertently, it seems) provided what may be the best illustration of the folly of broad assertions about electability during a January 25, 2004, appearance on CNN's Sunday Morning:
SHIELDS: Let me just add, that I think it's interesting electability really is upper most. You talk to voters, talked to a Wesley Clark voter yesterday, they said, were you bothered at all in any way about the fact that Clark had supported, voted for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and said, nope, we got to win back people who did, those Reagan Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan.
So electability is central. If electability had been dominant in the 2000 election, which it wasn't, then Democrats would have nominated Bradley who is far more electable than Al Gore, and Republicans would have elected John McCain, who is far more electable than George Bush.
Got that? Bill Bradley, who lost to Al Gore in every single primary, was the more "electable" of the two. And John McCain was "far more electable that George Bush." George Bush, as you may have noticed, is currently serving his second term as president of the United States. John McCain, as you may have noticed, is not. But John McCain "is far more electable than George Bush" -- no matter what those pesky elections show.
But the best reason for political pundits and journalists to get over their obsession with "electability" isn't that they risk looking foolish when their guesses turn out to be incorrect -- which is good, because the fear of looking foolish when they turn out to be wrong rarely seems to deter pundits from saying foolish things.
No, the best reason not to focus on "electability" is that news reports full of speculation about "electability" are news reports that aren't focusing on what the candidates would do if elected, and what that means for the country.
Let's say that on Hardball tonight, Chris Matthews and his guests spend 10 minutes in a spirited debate about Hillary Clinton's "electability." "She's unelectable," a pundit declares. "You're crazy. She's completely unelectable," Matthews responds. And so on. Now: what has the audience learned? That Clinton can't win? Well, true or not, we'll find out soon enough. Meanwhile, we haven't learned anything that will help us decide if she should win.
It is important to note that this does not seem to be equal-opportunity pointlessness. Democrats seem to be the subject of far more media speculation that they may be "unelectable" than Republicans.
A Nexis search covering January 1 to today finds 74 news reports that contain the word "unelectable" within 10 words of Clinton, Obama, or Edwards. Only 24 contain the word "unelectable" within 10 words of McCain, Giuliani, or Romney. And this isn't merely an artifact of the media's obsession with Hillary Clinton. "Unelectable" appeared within 10 words of Clinton 58 times, Obama 29 times, and Edwards 15 times. (These individual numbers do not total 74 because some articles mentioned multiple candidates near the word "unelectable.") On the Republican side, John McCain led the way with 13 mentions of his name within 10 words of "unelectable," followed by Giuliani with 9, and Romney with 4.
That's an imprecise measure, to be sure. But it seems that, after portraying progressives as bumbling losers for so long, many in the media actively look for reasons why a Democratic candidate can't win -- and for reasons why a Republican can.
As a result, for example, John Edwards' hair and purported good looks are portrayed as a negative -- an indication that he is a lightweight. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's "perfect hair" and "great chin" and "shoulders you could land a 737 on" are painted as assets. And Fred Thompson -- he's "the new Robert Redford." You can "smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva." More substantively, Rudy Giuliani's stated positions on the Iraq war and national security are wildly unpopular with the American people. And yet the media fall all over each other in a race to declare national security a political winner for him.
In September 2005, we wrote about a column by Newsweek's Howard Fineman: "[A]t a time when it seems that half the Republicans in Washington are being fitted for orange jumpsuits, Howard Fineman argues that Democrats are in trouble." Then, for much of last year, the media portrayed the Iraq war as a political danger for Democrats, despite a nearly limitless supply of public polling that showed the opposite. As the year wore on, and Democratic electoral victories looked more and more likely, Mark Halperin warned that the Democrats should be "scared to death about November's elections," while Mike Allen and James Carney weighed in with an October 9, 2006, article declaring, "You think the Republicans are sure to lose big in November? They aren't. Here's why things don't look so bad to them." A month later, Republicans lost big.
Constantly searching for reasons why Democrats can't win, why they are "unelectable," may be a comfortable old habit. But it doesn't serve the public well, and it makes the media who participate in it look increasingly silly.