Brace yourself: The word of the season is “electability.”

It’s not a pretty word but it’s already getting a lot of use in the political media in the context of the upcoming presidential election – which is coming up a lot faster than most normal people would expect.

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 Democratic candidates for president in the race, either announced, exploring or considered “very interested.” Credit the enthusiasm to the current president, known as “Individual No. 1” in the indictments, who has a way of firing up his base and the other side’s at the same time.

So as Democrats, and independents in some states, try to wade through a double digit list of candidates who have similar positions on many issues, expect to hear that they consider the most important quality to be “electability.”

To support this idea a Monmouth University poll is getting heavy circulation. It says that twice as many Democrats would prefer a nominee with whom they disagree on some issues but has a good chance of beating Trump over one with whom they usually agree but who might lose.

This result is taken to prove that Democrats are more strategic than ideological this time around. But all it really shows is that people who want to beat Trump would rather beat Trump than risk getting beaten by him.

The big problem is baked into the question — the notion that we can judge electability.

We think that we know it when we see it, like Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, but observation of human behavior shows that we don’t see the same things when we look at politics.

Either we decide to attribute our preferences to the rest of the world, and decide our candidate is the most electable. Or we invent imaginary voters and try to read their minds.

Either way, we suck at it.

A lot of people thought Hillary Clinton was more “electable” than Bernie Sanders in 2016. Maybe she was, but she was not electable enough to beat Trump.

And who ever thought Trump was electable? Or Barack Obama?

In Maine, Paul LePage was not the most “electable” Republican until he crushed the field in a seven-way primary and toughed out two close general elections.

During last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, Janet Mills was touted as more “electable” than some of her rivals because she came from the allegedly more conservative 2nd Congressional District. She did win her home county (Franklin) in November, but she was beaten everywhere else in the district, by double digits in a few counties.

Mills won big in Cumberland County, grabbing a 42,000 vote plurality, mostly from Greater Portland, the heart of the more liberal 1st District.

She was elected, so that makes her electable. But just not the way people had predicted.

In this year’s presidential race, the “electability” prize seems to be awarded to former Vice President Joe Biden, who you might remember was a two-time candidate for president and he was really bad at it both times. The other candidate considered to be electable by some is Bernie Sanders, who put on a strong showing in 2016. But since most of us have never seen him run against anyone but Hillary Clinton, maybe we shouldn’t rush to award the championship belt just yet.

Democrats would be much better off ignoring the horse race and voting for the candidate that they think would make the best president, rather than trying to figure out what other voters are going to do.

There are some bills before the Maine Legislature this year that should make the process work better.

One would pay to move from a party caucus process to a primary, where people can vote without devoting a whole day to standing in line. Another would let voters rank their choices, identifying their favorite and any others they could live with.

The first primary debates are coming up in June, which should give voters plenty of time to decide who they want to be president.

They shouldn’t be wasting their time trying to figure out which one has “electability.”

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor of the Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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