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Obama and Trump showed freshness and novelty matter more than centrism or swing state roots. Boring candidates who play it safe are bad 2020 bets.

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The conventional definition of electability hinges on centrism and moderation — and so far for 2020, on consensus and restraint. But in the most recent Democratic Party failures of 2004 and 2016, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton passed this test during the primary season only to disprove the thesis in the general election.

The Democrats in 2008 backed Barack Obama in spite of his comparatively little government experience and fears of racism diminishing his viability. Likewise, Donald Trump confounded his own establishment’s skepticism of his first-time candidacy even as he adhered to the most radical orthodoxy of the right.

The freshness and novelty proved an asset — not a liability — for Obama and Trump.  While not hailing from major battleground states themselves, Obama and Trump galvanized enormous grassroots energy in their respective bases to turn out historic margins in decisive metropolises and rural communities. 

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As they prepare for the first 2020 primary debate, primary and caucus voters need to adopt a more helpful electability criteria for their nominee: Geography + Personality = ​​Destiny​​. In a politics driven by the Electoral College system and a manic news media that inspect the mood swings of your tweets as well as daily campaign stops, this is the equation that matters.

Democrats need to build on midterms map

Let’s start with geography. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats expanded the map of competitive congressional districts. They made Republicans defend Trump in communities whose majorities had turned against him. With sentiment ranging from disappointment to repulsion of Trump, these constituents were demanding democratic accountability and commonsense solutions after two years aiding corruption and hurtful economic measures, particularly the new tax law.

Now the Democratic Party has the opportunity to choose a nominee — and ticket — that threads this same needle. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke  and former Vice President Joe Biden offer the most compelling path to Electoral College-rich states: Texas and Pennsylvania. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg possesses an uncanny Midwestern ethos — a gateway to Iowa, Ohio and of course his native Indiana — presumed to be “Trump country” but which in reality voted for Obama as recently as 2008 or 2012. Rep. Timothy Ryan of Ohio, a low-profile candidate for now, can’t be ignored.

Though early polls show that Sen. Kamala Harris might have a primary fight on her hands, she is well-positioned in her safe blue state of California, the largest electoral prize. She also has the potential to reignite base enthusiasm as well as tap into newfound Democratic organization in Florida and Georgia.

From a geographic standpoint, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have potentially more provincial appeal, but their populism could still play well in the Midwest. If Sanders can replicate or Warren can best his 2016 performances when he beat Hillary Clinton in the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries, it will be notable.

Now to the other half of the equation.

Instead of focusing on a sufficiently moderate stance on the issues, a personality test considers the integrity of the candidate’s convictions and how they animate him or her. Consensus doesn’t happen because a candidate says it’s important; only magnetic personalities can build such coalitions.

Impeachment, VP choices will be key

In the elections that Democrats lose, policy positions have dominated the electability assessment of the news media and voters. That needs to flip. Democratic primary voters must determine the personal qualities of their nominee — bigheartedness and vibrancy, candor and trustworthiness — long before the November general election. In the broadest sense, this means radiating charismatic honesty, authenticity and passion.

There are two important decisions in which the personality of a candidate will rise to the occasion — or fall into the abyss.

The first is impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for the moment, wants to conflate an impeachment inquiry or proceedings with untenable leftist policies. Don’t let her do that. The candidate who diligently champions both fidelity to the Constitution and policy prescriptions, including preventive anti-corruption measures, will demonstrate a winning character. Warren has admirably set the bar for her fellow candidates.

The second is knowing whom to select as your running mate. What doomed Hillary Clinton with enough traditionally Democratic voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin? First and foremost, it was the hubris to ignore 12 million Americans who voted for Sanders and select a vice president who did not complement her personality or geography.   

(Of course, it was also her private email server, paid speeches to Wall Street, lingering investigations and Russia's assist to Trump. It may be that Trump’s oversize corruption makes the character flaws or secrecy of the Democratic nominee less relevant to voters. But maybe not.)

Geography will winnow the field

Right now, there is not a single answer to the Geography + Personality test because there are multiple dimensions to each of the 23 candidates, and the equation isn’t completed until there is a ticket. While every Democrat running has acknowledgeda systemically unfair economy that Trump has exacerbated, many candidates will prove to have limited geographic appeal that will help winnow the field.  

The debates will crucially display the depth and resonance of their human character. Revising the process of elimination — the calculation of electability — is the first step.

Alexander Heffner is host of "The Open Mind" on PBS and co-author of "A Documentary History of the United States." Follow him on Twitter: @heffnera

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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