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Democrats are prioritizing “electability” in 2020. That’s a coded term.

It often means white and male.

Beto O’Rourke Holds Official Campaign Launch Rally In His Hometown Of El Paso
Democratic presidential hopeful former US Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) greets supporters during a campaign rally on March 30, 2019, in El Paso. 
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The majority of Democratic voters and Democratic leaners don’t have a preference when it comes to the race or gender of their party’s nominee, according to a Quinnipiac survey.

That’s one explanation for why a pack of white male candidates are consistently leading a historically diverse Democratic field: Representation simply matters less to some voters. But the voters Quinnipiac surveyed — and their responses to a different question — could offer another explanation.

Much like we’ve seen in poll after poll so far this cycle, voters in the survey noted that they prioritized “electability,” or the ability of a candidate to ultimately win against President Trump. What’s particularly interesting about this term, however, is that it could well signal a race and gender preference on its own.

If “electability” is one of the top qualities that voters are looking for — and that’s expressed through their candidate preferences — then there’s apparently a certain kind of candidate who fits the bill.

Voters’ top choices in the poll? Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Why “electability” is such a coded term

What “electability” actually entails can be quite nebulous.

An “electable” candidate could mean “someone who can motivate the middle-of-the-road voter,” as South Carolina state senator and Joe Biden supporter Dick Harpootlian told the Los Angeles Times. It could also mean offering a “great contrast” to Trump, as Arizona voter and Kamala Harris fan Don Brackbill told the Washington Post. And as New Hampshire voter Anita Wilkie told BuzzFeed News, it might just be directly related to a candidate who can trigger an instinctive response. “It’s gotta touch me, not just in my heart, but in my gut. I go by my gut feeling,” she said.

More often than not, however, the expectation of who can win is inextricably wrapped up in the knowledge of who has won. What that feeling looks like for each voter could well be influenced by the kinds of candidates voters have seen win races before. And in the case of the presidency, that mold consists overwhelmingly of older white men, a precedent that could hurt candidates who don’t fit those characteristics.

“Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to,” Christina Reynolds, a spokesperson for Emily’s List, a political organization that supports women candidates, previously told Vox.

“Electability,” in other words, could be another term that actively excludes candidates who don’t fit whatever the historical profile of a political candidate looks like. It’s an issue that emerged during the Georgia gubernatorial race, according to Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, an organization dedicated to bolstering women of color in politics.

“In 2017, the Georgia state Democratic Party and the so-called national experts didn’t look at Stacey Abrams as electable. It wasn’t because she wasn’t a fantastic leader,” says Allison. “They looked at her as not electable because there’s never been a black governor.” (While Abrams did not ultimately win the governor’s seat, she narrowed the gap between the Democratic and Republican candidates in Georgia to the smallest it’s been in years.)

As FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon writes, concerns about Kamala Harris’s identity as a woman of color have also been cited to him by left-leaning readers, who wonder whether her ethnicity and gender — along with her liberal policy platform — could hurt her “electability” with white swing voters in the Midwest.

Allison points to former President Barack Obama as the example of a candidate who addressed such concerns by building a broad coalition of voters, which included reaching out to more voters of color. Abrams, too, turned out more African American, Latino, and Asian American voters than previous Georgia Democrats had.

“When people argue that we need moderate voters, they aren’t recognizing that we have the people right now and we have to form a coalition of people of color and progressive white voters,” she said.

A portion of Democratic voters prefer a candidate who’s a woman or person of color

While most Democrats indicated that they didn’t have any preferences about the race or gender of a potential nominee, a fraction of voters said they did. And for these voters, Biden and Sanders didn’t exactly match their ideal candidate.

Of the voters who indicated a preference on certain demographic attributes, more Democrats are looking for a candidate who’s younger (39 percent), a woman (26 percent), and a person of color (20 percent) than those interested in someone older (21 percent), a man (10 percent), and white (4 percent), the survey found.

And representation was especially important to voters who identified as members of groups that have been underrepresented in the past. Women were more likely than men to prefer a woman as the Democratic nominee (32 percent versus 17), and black voters were more likely than white voters to favor a person of color (26 percent versus 15).

“We’re looking for courageous elected officials to carry our issues, to be a critical counterpoint to the politics that Trump represents, and also establishment politics,” says Allison.

As Democrats try to identify the candidate who can take on Trump, they’ll consider a lot of factors, including myriad policy positions and extensive track records. As the Quinnipiac polling suggests, implicitly or explicitly, race and gender will be a factor too.

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