I’m getting tired of media commentators arguing over which Democratic presidential candidate is the most “electable”. Not that I think the underlying conceptual debate is invalid, but the term “electable” itself is highly misleading. For example, the conventional wisdom is that John Kerry beat Howard Dean in New Hampshire because the former was considered more “electable”, i.e. that he’s more likely to defeat President Bush. But that’s not electability. Dean is perfectly capable of winning elections—he’s done so numerous times in Vermont. The only people that aren’t “electable” are those ineligible or unwilling to hold office. Richard Nixon, for example, is not electable because he’s dead.
When people say a candidate’s “electable”, they mean to say he’s marketable. The Democrats are trying to nominate a candidate to defeat Bush. Since most voters aren’t Democrats to begin with, the party must select a candidate that can appeal to these non-Democratic voters. Democrats will vote for anyone with a (D) next to their name. But convincing other people they need to vote Democratic—well that’s the classic definition of marketing.
Ten years ago, New York Republicans nominated unknown state senator George Pataki to run against three-term incumbent governor Mario Cuomo. Pataki had neither the resume nor the intellect of Cuomo. Yet Pataki, now himself a third-term governor, was a marketable politician: I’ve always said Pataki’s greatest asset was that he looked like the governor. For voters who can’t discern a great ideological difference between the major parties, that can be enough to close the deal.
John Kerry has that Pataki-like quality of looking like a president. Kerry’s lack of substance relative to other Democrats is almost an afterthought. Dean became unmarketable in the eyes of many after his Iowa concession screed. For Dean, it was a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment. If Kerry doesn’t have a similar visual moment in the next few weeks, many Democrats will stick with him despite the obvious flaws.