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Carman: In the 2020 election, there’s no such thing as a safe choice

The sense of urgency is palpable. Democrats are characterizing the 2020 elections as the moment when the fate of the planet, the world economy, truth, justice, human decency and democracy itself will be decided.

I happen to agree. 

It’s the prevailing political strategies I’m not so sure about. 

I wonder if the pundits, the campaign consultants and the political insiders are forcing us to face harsh realities or if they are woefully out of touch with a younger, highly motivated, increasingly diverse electorate.

Diane Carman

I question whether the traditional notions of electability ring true in 2020. Or if they ever did.

OK, some of them surely do. Like name recognition. That’s fundamental, right?

“One of the challenges for any campaign when public polling and horse-race journalism have really grown exponentially in the last 15 years is that name ID is one of the first and probably the most important aspects in winning office,” said Curtis Hubbard, a partner at the political consulting firm OnSight Public Affairs. “Known quantities are important.”

Like former Gov. John Hickenlooper, he said.

Joannie Braden, vice president and co-founder of the political consulting firm RBI Strategies & Research, and research associate Tasia Poinsatte agreed – up to a point.

“Name recognition definitely has something to do with electability,” Braden said.

After all, most voters are more familiar with the Broncos’ third-string back-up quarterback than they are with the other candidates vying to challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner next year.

But familiarity cuts both ways.

“It can work for you or against you,” Hubbard said.

In Hickenlooper’s case, Hubbard thinks it’s an asset.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

“I’m a huge supporter of John Hickenlooper. He’s a known quantity and he has delivered for Colorado.” And don’t forget, he said, “Cory Gardner is formidable” despite the widespread unpopularity of Donald Trump across Colorado. “Cory has proven to be adept politically.”

Given all that and the relatively weak name recognition of the other candidates, Hubbard said it would have been “political malpractice” for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee not to endorse Hickenlooper after he withdrew from the presidential race and entered the Senate contest. The party needs to get a strong candidate in place in Colorado so it can focus its resources on tougher Senate races around the country.

So, the thinking goes, this is not the time for women or candidates of color to break through. Suck it up.

Poinsatte finds the whole scenario frustrating.

“It’s irritating to me that there’s an assumption that he’s the only electable candidate,” Poinsatte said. “A lot of people said Jared Polis — a gay man from Boulder — couldn’t be elected governor. But the demographics of the voters are changing, and part of the reason for that is that more people are going to register and vote for candidates they’re excited about and who represent them.”

In Hickenlooper’s case, she said, a segment of the electorate has been alienated by his track record.

“I was born and raised in Boulder, so I’ve had close contact with people who are strongly anti-fracking and despise Hickenlooper. My fear is that they will run a third-party candidate.” 

If that happens, “it bites us all,” she said.

On the national stage, the elements of electability are constantly changing, harder to quantify and often feel calculated to preserve the status quo — as in old white guys.

The basic factors — name recognition and familiarity — are undeniable and explain why former Vice President Joe Biden is at the top of the polls at this point. 

But it takes more than high name ID to prevail in the long primary campaign. 

After all, in 2008 the relative newcomer Barack Obama cleared a field of prominent primary contenders with considerably higher name recognition including John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. 

Clearly in 2008, a national race required much more than familiarity. 

“Does the candidate have charisma both onstage and in person? Does he or she convey authenticity?” Braden said, “and what does authenticity look like? Where do you stand on the issues and what are your life experiences? The voters ask, ‘Is this someone who can speak to me? Is this someone who reflects my views?’ ”

The nominee has to put forth a vision people will rally around, so voters not only decide to turn out, but they knock on doors, make calls, raise funds, and work their hearts out to make sure the candidate is elected.

Given all those other electability factors, sometimes the safe, familiar, middle-of-the-road choice turns out to be the riskiest for Democrats because there’s no spark. Think John Kerry in 2004.

“I think Joe Biden is at his ceiling right now,” Hubbard said, attributing that to his high name recognition numbers compared to those of many of the other candidates. “He will only fall back from here as Biden returns to being the guy who lost so many previous primaries.”

If that happens, the field is wide-open. 

The consultants agree that the demographics of the electorate are changing dramatically, which also is a big factor in determining electability. 

Demographic change is why so many Republican congressmen are resigning rather than facing tough re-election campaigns, Hubbard said.

“The Republicans see it coming. That’s why they’re fighting so hard to make it difficult to vote and it’s why they’ve engaged in these egregious gerrymandering scams,” he said.  

But Democratic candidates can’t take women, minorities and young voters for granted. They’ve all had quite enough of that.

“People of color especially feel they have a stake in this election” after all the attacks from the Trump administration on their culture, their character and their way of life, Braden said. “So, candidates have to think about what they are saying and who they are saying it to. Does it resonate?”

If it doesn’t, it’s just more pandering, which disgusts voters and leads to dangerously low T — as in turnout.

Clearly, predicting electability is not easy. So, when candidates are deemed more electable than their competitors, it’s worth looking closely at who has made that determination and why.

Charisma, authenticity, courage, vision, smart policy, a track record of accomplishment, campaign skills and, yes, name recognition are all part of the formula. 

What worked in 2008 or even 2018 might not work in 2020. The candidates, the voters, the issues all change.

So, ultimately electability is more like voodoo than science.

No matter what anybody says.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.