Janine Jackson: “‘Electability’ Is the Most Important, Least Understood Word in the 2020 Race,” was the headline on a recent NBC News piece. That electability is important in an election sounds tautological. But NBC is, of course, getting at the fact that Democrats, for example, when asked by pollsters who they would like to see in office, will often give a different answer than to the question of who they will vote for—the difference based on some ill-defined calculations about who their neighbors might vote for, or who media are telling them stands a chance.
But what are those things based on? And, more to the point, if we continue to define who’s electable based on who has been elected—ahem, white men—how will change ever happen?
The Reflective Democracy Campaign is an effort to illuminate questions of the demographics of political power, and to disrupt them. Their latest report is called The Electability Myth. Brenda Choresi Carter directs the Reflective Democracy Campaign. She joins us now by phone from Washington, D.C. Welcome to CounterSpin, Brenda Choresi Carter.
Brenda Choresi Carter: I’m happy to be here.
Let’s leap right in. Describe the database—unique, I believe—that you’re working with, and how does your latest running of the numbers challenge the conventional wisdom around electability?
Our database looks at the race and gender of everybody who holds elected office in America at the county level and higher, plus in the 200 largest cities. We also analyze the race and gender of candidates on the general election ballot for those same offices.
This is, as you noted, a first-of-its-kind database that provides this kind of comprehensive mapping of race and gender and political power in America. And we feel like it’s really important just to actually have the numbers.
So we looked at who ran in 2018, up and down the ballot, and who won, and who holds office now. And this is a continuation of studies that we’ve been doing since 2014, tracking race and gender and political candidacy and political office.
And we found that when we looked at who was on the ballot in 2018 by race and gender, and who won by race and gender, white men have no electability advantage; they do not win at higher rates than other groups, and, in fact, if you really want to get specific about it, they actually win at slightly lower rates than other groups. So they are not the safe bet they are often assumed to be when thinking about political candidates.
Now, you note at the outset, of course, that white men dominate politics. And so when you say they don’t have an electability advantage, what is it that you’re tracking that is showing that?
The reason that white men disproportionately hold political power—well, there are a lot of reasons.
But in terms of just looking at the data, it’s because they’re disproportionately on the ballot.
So when candidates get on the general election ballot, regardless of their race and/or gender, they win at the same rates. So the real problem here is who’s ending up on our ballots, who voters are offered to choose from when they go to vote.
So it sounds like Newsweek is assessing it correctly when they say that the research suggests that
the over-representation of white men in politics is less about voters’ discrimination, than barriers to entry that keep fewer women and people of color from running in the first place.
So let’s talk a little about some of the barriers to women and people of color being on the ballot in the first place, that your report notes.
Yes, that’s exactly right. When voters go into the voting booth to vote, they are presented with a ballot that is the result of a long and usually invisible process of selection and support. There are pretty high barriers to entry into politics for everyone, but women and people of color face even higher ones.
And, in particular, the problem of political gatekeepers is one that I think even engaged voters often don’t understand, because it’s so invisible. So political parties, major donors, advocacy organizations, groups like the Chamber of Commerce or the Sierra Club, or other organizations that shape who is on the ballot, and which candidates get the support to run and win, are a crucial bottleneck in the system here.
Those political gatekeepers are themselves disproportionately white men; they really capture the phrase “old boys’ club.” And when they’re looking around, deciding who they’re going to support for political office, they often choose from their own networks, from people they already know, and from people who end up looking a lot like themselves.
And you note that a lot of that gatekeeping is hidden, really, from public view; by the time you get in the voting booth, it’s already happened. When I think of gatekeepers, I also do think of media; they clearly have a role here, they have their own criteria for electability that has to do with fundraising, but then also they can kind of themselves declare candidates unelectable.
Listeners might remember the Howard Dean scream; media were just like, “Oh, he’s toast,” you know? And everyone said, “Oh, I guess he’s toast.”
I think using actual numbers, you know, as you, as you said, at the outset, would be a great advance beyond anecdote, but how could media talk about this set of issues more responsibly?
I do think the numbers are incredibly important here. You know, you really can’t argue with them. And having reality-based conversations and analysis, rather than coverage that’s based on hunches or feelings or conventional wisdom, would be incredibly helpful.
Of course, the electability conversation is really swirling around the Democratic presidential primary right now, for very good reasons. There’s so much hand-wringing about whether a woman can win. And, you know, I’m not a prognosticator about political elections; that’s not what I do. But looking at the historical data, we have one data point to look at, where there was a woman as a major party nominee in recent history, and that was Hillary Clinton, and she won a majority of votes.
It’s surprising to me how often that gets overlooked or swept under the rug in the discussion on this question.
I find something just heartrending about the disconnect, about people saying, for example, as they do, they would be happy with a woman president, but their neighbors wouldn’t be. Or the Democratic poll that said that people said if they had a “magic wand,” this person would be president, but that’s not who they’re going to vote for. It sort of reminds me of parents who say, “I’m not sorry that my child is gay, it’s just that I know others are going to be unkind to them.”
It’s a kind of pre-worry, based on this kind of Gresham’s law, that the worst is always going to win out, so we should just do what’s been done, to keep safe. And it ensures that the future is going to look like the past.
Yeah, that’s very well put. I think it’s also, maybe a different way of saying it, it is a kind of illustration of the really diminished expectations that people have come to have of political life and political representation. We are so used to one group, white men—and in most cases, wealthy white men—dominating political life and political decision-making, that to imagine anything else seems just to be almost like it’s hoping for the impossible. But our data shows that that’s not the case.
And so that’s why I do think our research and the data that we found is actually incredibly hopeful. The problem here is not, by and large, voters; they are not the reason we don’t have a reflective democracy. They are voting for women and people of color just as often as white men.
And then, because it’s not, after all, an artificial exercise to get more women and people of color into elected office; it’s working towards there being a real relationship between power and people.
And I guess I also am very heartened by the report, and I guess I also, based on what we’ve just been saying, I’m also heartened that so many women and people of color see electoral politics as a place for them, as a ground that they won’t cede, despite the way they’re often treated, as we’re seeing right this minute. And so part of my takeaway from this report is that people are thinking, “The water’s not fine at all, but you should still jump in,” if you are thinking of standing for office at any level.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, we saw a real uptick, really a surge of women of all races in 2018, running and winning up and down the ballot. And I think it reflects the incredible urgency that people feel about the moment that we’re in, given how really unwelcoming the political field is to nontraditional candidates.
Like you said, the water is not fine. People are still willing to plunge into it, because it’s very clear that leaving decision-making power in the hands of the groups who have long held it, to the exclusion of the rest of us, is not working. And we can’t wait for that to somehow work itself out, because it won’t work itself out. We have to bust in and insist that power be shared in a different kind of way.
We’ve been speaking with Brenda Choresi Carter of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. You can find their work, including the report The Electability Myth, online at WhoLeads.US. Brenda Choresi Carter, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thank you for having me.