Who Elected Electability?

Electability isn’t even a word that’s recognized by my Microsoft Word dictionary. But in the Democratic race, it’s all anybody can talk about.

The rush to the caucus lets candidates shove policy distinctions into the shadows. Now it’s about appealing to a more primal belief—that Americans don’t want to waste their vote. 

All of the candidates have been saying that they are the most electable for some time. And in the past few days, the Big Three have been outspoken about the unelectable pieces of their opponents’ messages. But on a conference call today, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said something a bit different: Edwards is unelectable not because of his platform, but because he doesn’t have enough money.

Edwards’ decision to take public financing gave him a burst of money, but it capped his ability to spend in the long run. Essentially, it means Edwards is hamstrung if he wins the nomination in February and has to compete with the Republican nominee through the conventions. Obama’s campaign estimates that Edwards will have only about $17 million to play with after Iowa. That $17 million will wilt under the GOP’s fiscal sun. 

Trying to convince Iowans not to vote for Edwards can easily backfire. Edwards’ platform revolves around helping the middle class rise up, and in this wacky race Edwards’ campaign’s coffer is relatively middle-class. If Obama’s camp isn’t careful, Iowans will vote for Edwards so they can prove that the middle class can ” fight ” the rich in Washington. (Cue the Rocky theme .)

Indirectly, though, bringing up Edwards’ wallet does allow Obama’s campaign to get in another dig at the 527 groups doing Edwards’ bidding . As Politico ‘s Ben Smith notes , third-party groups can lobby for Edwards on his behalf. On today’s conference call, Plouffe said that Edwards had “obviously showed special skill for benefiting from 527s and outside spending.” 527 groups haven’t spent money for Obama—yet. 

The Obama-Edwards duel proves fights about electability quickly morph into fights about something else: money, flip-flopping, skeletons in the closet, you name it. Electability is a high-stakes “in” to denigrate your opponents while still sounding like America’s future is what’s most important. That’s why campaigns love riffing on it-even if it’s not a real word.