With Elizabeth Warren surging toward front-runner status in the Democratic nomination race, the specter of her supposed lack of electability has been raised by increasingly nervous Democrats (and hopeful Republicans). The idea is that someone as liberal as she is – and she is quite liberal – couldn’t win the presidency, and that Democrats risk throwing away a winnable election by nominating her. The common response is that Donald Trump’s win in 2016 shows that our notions of electability are skewed; if we will elect someone as radical as he supposedly is, we will be willing to elect her.

I believe that both these analytical tacks are flawed. For starters, we don’t do a very good job of judging electability. Once upon a time, Barry Goldwater proved that Ronald Reagan could not win in 1980. Bill Clinton’s reputed affairs and marijuana usage supposedly showed that he could not win in 1992. And was the country really ready for an African American liberal from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama?

Ultimately, a candidate’s position on the ideological spectrum does matter, but probably only at the margins. Elections are driven more by “fundamental” factors such as the state of the economy -- George McGovern’s and Walter Mondale’s liberalism probably mattered less for their losses than the surge in GDP that Presidents Nixon and Reagan enjoyed as they moved toward Election Day. In other words, if the economy is in recession next year, Warren’s liberalism won’t matter that much, while if the economy were to boom next year, it won’t be the primary reason she loses.

What of the argument that Trump proves an extremist can win? A few months ago, Matt Yglesias got the answer partially correct:

"Many progressives have what they believe to be a knock-down answer to nervous Nellies who fret that talking about desegregation busing, decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States, banning assault weapons, and replacing private health insurance will kill them at the polls in 2020: Donald Trump is president. …

"This is, however, precisely the wrong lesson to learn from the Trump era.

"It’s true that Trump is president, but it’s not true that Trump ran and won as an ideological extremist. He paired extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues with positioning on key economic policy topics that led him to be perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations."

Yglesias goes on to describe the political science literature suggesting that moderation matters in races for federal office. While some, especially left-leaning elite political observers, might question whether it is sensible to describe Trump as moderate, Yglesias shows that he was perceived as more moderate by voters, which is what ultimately matters.

But this is really only part of the story with Trump. It wasn’t just that he was relatively moderate compared to previous GOP nominees. It is actually that he was relatively extreme in a particular way, and on particular issues, that aided him in winning.

This gets back to a piece that I wrote in 2013, well before Trump famously descended that escalator to announce his presidential run:

"But the GOP still has something of a choice to make. One option is to go after these downscale whites. … It can probably build a fairly strong coalition this way. Doing so would likely mean nominating a candidate who is more Bush-like in personality, and to some degree on policy. This doesn’t mean embracing 'big government' economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more 'America first' on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics." 

The GOP coalition post-Romney consisted of a white suburbanites, a small-but-significant faction of non-white voters, and a growing group of blue-collar whites. There were basically two routes for the GOP to take: try to appeal to nonwhite voters, or try to solidify the party’s grip on blue-collar whites. In 2016, the party opted for the latter approach.

This was an important choice. The gamble essentially was that Trump could hold on to enough white-collar suburbanites while appealing to those voters who were the weakest members of the Obama coalition: blue-collar whites who had been exiting the party gradually over the course of the past 40 years. Trump was a far more extreme case of this strategy than I had envisioned, but it worked, albeit barely. Whites without college degrees, especially Northern whites without college degrees, voted Republican at historically high rates.

The 2018 elections can then be understood as a backlash to this strategy. Suburban whites with college degrees, who had been increasingly uncomfortable with the GOP’s stance on cultural and social issues, voted for Democrats. They are now the swing voters in the electorate, and Democrats must perform well with them to compensate for the loss of blue-collar whites.

This, then, is the nub of Warren’s problem. It is not that she is liberal. It is that the issues on which she has taken the most prominent liberal stances are issues that are likely to give suburban whites pause. In particular, her pledge to abolish private insurance  is likely to cause resistance among suburbanites, many of whom have top-notch health care plans.

You may be thinking, “But Republicans will accuse any Democrat of being an extremist on health care.” This is probably true. But most Democrats will be able to run commercials and point to speeches denying the claim. For voters who want to vote Democratic, that will probably be enough. Warren, however, has to make a different argument: “Yes, I want to do away with private insurance, but your anxiety over Medicare for All is misplaced.” That’s a much tougher sell, as it forces voters to abandon their preconceived notions, rather than supplement them.

Or, as one of my readers put it: There’s a big difference between having a Republican attack ad run against you, and running on a Republican attack ad.

Will it be enough to sink Warren? I don’t know. We’re more than a year out from Election Day, so polling is of little value at this point. As noted above, the candidates’ specific stances on issues probably don’t matter as much in elections as we would like to believe. But if you believe this election is likely to be close, as I do, Warren may turn off voters that Democrats can’t afford to lose. For progressives, Warren winning would have a huge upside, as she’d likely be the most effective candidate out there for moving their priorities forward. But the possibility that her ideological stances could cost Democrats an otherwise winnable election is a very real downside.