Predicting "Electability" Is Probably Futile

A candidate's future viability is largely speculation.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

Photo by Jackson Lanier, Creative Commons license
Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a recent rally in Durham, North Carolina.
Source: Photo by Jackson Lanier, Creative Commons license

“Electability” is the big issue these days in Democratic presidential politics. Every major candidate, according to a wide range of self-appointed experts, has some characteristic that will inhibit voter appeal in the general election. If true, this is disastrous for those who see defeating Donald Trump as the number one priority (as most Democratic voters do). 

Some pundits tell us that Bernie Sanders, now the clear frontrunner, is unelectable because the Vermont senator identifies as a democratic socialist and offers an agenda that is too far-left. Others insist Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is unelectable because America isn’t ready for an openly gay president. The arguments against the electability of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, are more vague, but they seem to come down to the fact that she is a woman who, God forbid, asserts herself and her views. Finally, we are told former Vice President Joe Biden is unelectable because he’s showing his age and doesn’t seem able to inspire the party base, which will be essential in the general election. 

All of these theories assume to understand the psychology and future behavior of the American electorate, and all of them are little more than sheer speculation. In truth, there are no true "experts” on electability. 

It’s worth remembering that many elections, including American presidential elections, have been won by candidates who were deemed unelectable. Many Democrats were smug when the GOP nominated Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, for example, because experts were certain that the country would never elect such an extreme conservative. Many even pointed to a prior presidential election, in 1964, when another ideological conservative, Barry Goldwater, was trounced by his Democratic opponent. Nevertheless, of course, Reagan went on to win handily.

As with Reagan in 1980, those claiming Sanders is unelectable are pointing to history to support their position, specifically the 1972 trouncing of liberal Democrat George McGovern, an unabashed hard-left candidate, as “proof” that a candidate like Sanders can’t win. But just as Reagan was no Goldwater, one could argue that Sanders is no McGovern.

Indeed, history shows that a candidate's ideological positioning is a poor predictor of that candidate's success. If Goldwater and McGovern are examples of "extreme" candidates losing, there are even more examples of relatively moderate, establishment candidates, from both parties, falling short in the electoral college. Consider Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis on the Democratic side, and Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush (in 1992), and Gerald Ford for the GOP.

Whereas those seemingly moderate, safe candidates all lost, other candidates that seemed to have high “unelectable” factors have pulled off victories that would have previously seemed highly unlikely—think not just Reagan, but consider that few believed that an African American was electable before Barack Obama came on the scene. (And it’s also noteworthy that Obama was elected with a campaign that pitched itself as ardently progressive ("Hope and Change"), even though he governed as a centrist once in office.)

What we find is that electability comes down to many nuanced, subjective, and unpredictable factors. While a candidate’s policy positions are relevant, his or her personal charisma, ability to inspire the base, and generate turnout are undoubtedly bigger factors.

Also, and very importantly, the unpopularity of the opposing candidate is a key factor. Goldwater's loss in 1964 was to a relatively popular incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, who had just taken office in the wake of the JFK assassination. Reagan, in 1980, was running against a widely unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Thus, the degree of Trump's negatives will undoubtedly be a major deciding factor in the 2020 outcome.

One must also bear in mind that every four years the electorate itself changes drastically, making comparisons to previous elections all the more unreliable. Just by natural attrition, over 10 million people who were voting age in 2016 will be dead before the 2020 election takes place, whereas over ten million people who were too young to vote in 2016 will now be voting age. Considering that the difference in the popular vote in 2016 was less than three million, the significance of this demographic change can’t be dismissed. 

Of course, polls can (and do) try to get inside voters’ minds so that accurate predictions can be made, but again none are perfect. Thus, whereas one poll says Americans are turned off by “socialism,” others show that a strong progressive agenda is exactly what Americans want. Pundits, of course, interpret these numbers as they wish.

What all this means is that speculation about electability can be largely a waste of time. If Democrats want to win in November, they should focus their energies not on guessing about electability, but on ensuring that voters commit to going to the polls and voting for the nominee, regardless of who he or she is. Absolute commitment to unity, and to making Trump a one-term president, will make any of the candidates “electable.”

References

Sanders photo by Jackson Lanier, Creative Commons License.