Does “electability” matter?

Dan Guild reviews past polling data for clues on how Democratic voters will pick a favorite presidential contender. -promoted by Laura Belin

“I am for him/her because they can win”. I have been active in New Hampshire and Iowa presidential primary politics for over 30 years. In that time I have found if you ask someone why they are for a candidate, likely as not they will say “because they can win.” The press mirrors this and will write often about which contender is “electable”.

I am skeptical electability is ever decisive.

Has electability mattered in the past?

Reasons for my skepticism: First, when Iowa and New Hampshire vote there is usually little difference between the candidates in trial heats against probable Republican opponents. Second, we tend to believe the candidate we prefer will inevitably be the most electable. Put another way, if I like the candidate I think others will too.

But this is the first election where Donald Trump has been president. Since his victory was unanticipated, and his persona is so alienating to Democrats, this election may be different.

This table contains the most important quality voters identified in the early nominating contests since 2004.

Note that electability has never been the most important issue.

The 2008 data point to a winning message: I can bring about needed change. That year, Barack Obama won by 30 points among Democrats who cited the ability to bring about change as their top candidate quality. It is why he won the Iowa caucuses. If I were running a campaign, I would put that message front and center.

In 2004 and 2008, voter perceptions about their candidate’s “electability” mirrored their own choice. The exception was in 2016, when Bernie Sanders voters understood their candidate was not the most electable.

Is this time different?

Selzer’s December 2018 Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register and CNN asked what is more important: that the candidate have a strong chance to beat Donald Trump, or that the candidate share your position on the issues?

By 54 percent to 40 percent, voters said beating Trump was more important.

Monmouth asked a similar question in a national poll last month: Would you prefer a candidate you agree with on most issues but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump, or a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump?

By 56 percent to 33 percent, Monmouth’s respondents wanted someone who could beat Trump.

So is this time different? Surely it is for one candidate: Sanders is unlikely to win Iowa unless his supporters believe he can defeat Trump as easily as the other candidates. That may not be difficult, given the polling in 2016, but Iowa in 2020 is likely to be very different from four years earlier.

In any event, I doubt electability will matter. History is fairly clear: when we chose a candidate, we think that candidate can win.

  • 2016

    Polling people on whether they believe a candidate who can defeat Trump is more important or if believing in similar policies is more important illustrates an advantage for true progressives. The reality of the situation is reflected within the content of the two different options; beating Trump or aligned policy positions.

    If we simply consider that all the people who answered the former in that poll truly believe in their answer then they will vote for the democratic nominee regardless of their policy positions. However, the 40 or so percent that consider policy substance more important will need to be won over by the nominee and perhaps could possibly be the people who handed the election to Trump in 2016.

    Seeing as how universal education is supported by 68% of the country and nearly 80% of democrats and Medicare for All is supported by 70% of the country and nearly 85% of democrats according to a Reuters poll last October the most prominent policy answers are clear.

    If beating Trump is the priority for the Democratic Party and the voters who participate in primary elections, they should consider the policies that will maintain as much of the party’s electorate as possible. It is not ridiculous for people to have a litmus test for candidates, many people maintain them in their personal lives when dealing with undesirable attributes such as racism or lack of integrity. Similarly those who wish to defeat Trump only stand to benefit by supporting a candidate who subscribes to popular policies, as those candidates are most likely to maintain the voting bloc necessary to win an election. Hillary Clinton was very indecisive when it came to these two fundamental issues and that clearly contributed to her loss to perhaps the easiest candidate in the history of this country to defeat. To simply blame her loss on sexism or fake news would be misguided when all the empirical evidence points towards her weak positions on issues fundamental to the American people.

  • What's the difference?

    “When we [choose] a candidate, we think that candidate can win.”

    That’s electability.

    There are three priorities in this election: 1. Oust Trump. 2. Oust Trump. 3. Oust Trump.

    Nothing else matters. Not moderate vs. progressive, not gender, not anything else. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina need to rally behind the Democrat who is best situated to beat Trump. And to do that, we need the votes of the folks who voted Democrat in the midterms.

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