5 min read

In This Letter, I Am, Unfortunately, Talking About Electability and Joe Biden

Before I say anything else, let me make something clear: if you like Joe Biden and are happy to be voting for him, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. In fact, I’m not trying to talk you out of voting for him even if you’re not happy to be doing so. I don’t know what you value or how you arrive at your decisions, but I do think those decisions are yours to make. What I am going to do here, though, is talk about why I’m not going to vote for him. If that sounds like something you’d rather not read, for any reason or no reason, that’s fine and there are no hard feelings.

Because the people in my life know that I am politically active, there is a thing that’s been happening to me for the past six months or so, which is that basically any time I go to a family gathering or large social event, people will approach me and ask me who I’m voting for. And, more often than not, those same people then talk to me about Joe Biden.

“You know,” they’ll say, “I don’t really like him that much. In any other election, I’d probably vote for somebody more like who you probably want to vote for, Mike. But we can’t mess around this time. We have to beat Trump, and I really think the only person who can do that is Biden.”

I’m not really sure exactly what kind of a response people are looking for from me when they have this talk with me. Maybe they want to be confirmed in that choice. Maybe they want me to talk them out of it. Maybe they know that I disagree and are trying to convince me. So far, I don’t think any of these conversations have wound up satisfactory for anyone involved.

But I want to talk about this particular form of tactical voting for a little bit, because I honestly do believe that if Joe Biden gets the Democratic nomination, then Trump will be re-elected.

As I understand it, the argument for Biden goes like this (and I’m going to do my best not to misrepresent this perspective): Progressive candidates like Warren and Sanders are too far to the left for most American voters, and they will scare off too many centrists. On the other hand, a centrist candidate like Biden will bring in those centrists, and progressive voters will still show up for him because they know how awful Trump is. Also, Biden has the best chance of bringing back those swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and then voted for Trump in 2016.

To understand why I disagree with this reasoning, we have to look at the 2018 midterm elections and the so-called “blue wave.” If there is one lesson we should take away from 2018 it is this: turnout wins elections.

In 2018, the Democratic Party had a net gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives. That coincided with the highest midterm voter turnout in the previous 104 years. Moreover, even in elections they didn’t win, Democrats made incredible showings in elections in 2017 and 2018 in a number of deeply red districts. These wins and near-wins did not happen because Trump voters in those districts decided in large numbers to change their minds. As far as we can tell, most people who voted for Trump in 2016 are pretty satisfied with him and will likely vote for him again in 2020. No, what drove the blue wave was convincing people who stayed home in 2016 to show up in 2018. That’s an entirely different proposition.

In 2016, about 69 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and about 66 million people voted for Donald Trump. But about 95 million voting-age citizens—about 40%—didn’t vote at all. Of course, when we look at those numbers it might be tempting to lay the blame on the two candidates’ unpopularity—and, according to polling data, Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular candidates ever recorded. But it must also be noted that voter suppression, disenfranchisement, alienation, and general apathy also played a role in turnout. And we also have to note that turnout rates were about the same in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and were even lower for the previous 30 years’ worth of presidential elections.

Still, the path to a Democratic victory in 2020 is mainly going to come down to not winning back moderate Republicans but at how effective both the Party and the grassroots are at getting people to the polls. Turnout is key in any election, but in order to surmount the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and active foreign interference, it’s going to take a rise in participation that the United States hasn’t seen in over a century, since the period we now call “the Progressive Era.” Getting that many people to vote is going to be difficult under any circumstances, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be more difficult without a candidate that actually excites people.

And here’s the thing: I don’t know anybody who is actually excited about voting for Joe Biden. As you’d expect, given my own political leanings and the activist circles I move in, I know a lot of people who are excited about Sanders and Warren. But I also know a lot of people who are excited about other candidates. I have talked to people who are thrilled about Bloomberg. I know people who talk about how much they like Buttigieg. I know people who are all-in for Yang. I know people who love Klobuchar. And before they dropped out, I heard from a lot of people who were excited for Harris or Booker or Castro or Gillibrand or Inslee. But, so far, every person who has talked to me about why they’re voting for Biden has made a point of talking about how they don’t actually like him, but that they feel they have to vote for him. I don’t think that a candidate that people feel not excitement for but only obligation can drive new voter registrations and get people to show up on Election Day in the numbers that we need. I don’t think that Joe Biden can win.

I could be wrong, of course. One person’s anecdotes about the conversations he’s had is not the same thing as reliable data. I live in one of the most reliably Democratic-voting states in the country, and I work with an openly progressive activist organization. So, yes, my experiences may not be representative.

Moreover, it’s also quite possible to look at the 2018 blue wave and come away with the conclusion that centrism works—certainly the majority of the freshman House Democrats are moderates. We can argue about how progressive candidates would have done in any of those districts, but in most cases it would just be speculation. And it may be that beating Trump is enough of an incentive to get historical turnout numbers in 2020, even without a Democratic nominee that people actually like.

Ultimately, each of us is going to do what we think is best. We’re going to make our decisions for our own reasons and on our own terms. I’m certainly not going to tell you who to vote for in the primaries, and if Joe Biden wins the nomination, I will do my best to get out there and get people to vote for him in November.

But what I would like is for each of us to try to look past what we fear and try to figure out what we really want, what we think will actually make this country and the world better. Because I really do believe that voting for what we actually want is not just the idealistic thing to do, it makes good tactical sense, too.

Take care,