Domestic Affairs

Is Electability Overrated?

With the 2016 presidential loss in mind, many Democratic primary voters are looking for a candidate that can beat Donald Trump more than anything. Political scientists would call this quality electability, but what does that even mean? People often attribute this quality to experience in Washington or how well someone polls in general election matchups. If this is your benchmark, then Joe Biden is without a doubt your guy. He served as a U.S. Senator for almost 40 years and then went on to spend eight years as the vice president under Barack Obama. He is polling on average 7.7 percent higher than Donald Trump, a fact he is not afraid to bring up in his ads. Electability in practice, though, is more myth than reality. It seems as if Democratic primary voters have already forgotten that this obsession with experience was one of the reasons that got us Donald Trump’s victory in the first place. Electability seems to overemphasize both experience and general election matchup polling, both of which rarely determine whether a candidate is electable or not. 

Every primary cycle before the presidential election, pollsters release general election head-to-head polls listing each of the primary candidates against the incumbent to see what a general election race would look like. These are hardly accurate. With countless variables that could change in a race, it is impossible to show with accuracy what the circumstances will be in a general election matchup. For example, the polling data showed in 2015 that Jeb Bush was the most electable candidate because he only had an average deficit of 2.8 percent to Hillary Clinton, while Trump had an average deficit of 6.5 percent. Polling rarely shows the full picture of a general election matchup when conducted during the primaries, yet they still influence our decisions on who is considered electable or not.

Another example is when people often vote for candidates who might not even be their first choice. In one survey done by Avalanche, people were asked who they would pick if they had a “magic wand” to make their preferred candidate president, and they often picked a candidate seen as more electable over their first-choice candidate. Biden received 29 percent of support in the polling despite only 19 percent of people choosing him with their “magic wand.” Based on the Avalanche data, as lesser-known and underfunded candidates drop out, it is likely that support will still go to Biden. This is because many of those that don’t support him initially will get behind him anyway since he is seen as more electable when compared to more favored “magic wand” candidates like Warren or Sanders.

The other benchmark people often use to demonstrate electability is the experience of a candidate. We should want someone who understands the basics of what the job requires, but this should not outweigh the merits of one’s ideas. General election voters have shown their preference for visionaries over Washington insiders time and time again. In 1992, we saw Bill Clinton run against the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, and win by offering a new and empathetic vision of Democratic politics that could inspire Reagan Democrats to support him. In 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the primary and then went on to beat John McCain in the general election by offering a clear vision and a call for generational change that resonated with voters tired of the status quo and typical Washington insiders. 

But it’s the Democratic losses that tell an even more interesting story. In 2000 and 2004, longtime former U.S. Senators Al Gore and John Kerry lost the White House to George W. Bush, who offered a vision of compassionate conservatism and security in a post-9/11 world. Finally, in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who served as the first lady, a U.S. Senator, and secretary of state lost as well. None of her credentials ultimately mattered, and Donald Trump ended up taking the White House. Talking about electability being more myth than fact is not to say that someone like Joe Biden is destined to lose to someone like Marianne Williamson. This conversation does not mean there is no clear statistical advantage of incumbency. The point is that people should not be rallying behind uncharismatic candidates or politicians they do not share values with simply for the sake of electability. This should be especially true in a primary where no candidate is the incumbent of that office. Whichever candidate shares your values the most is the one you should vote for. General election matchup polling is too early to give an accurate picture of the race, and impressive resumes and experience pale in comparison to candidates that are able to offer a clear vision forward. If Democrats want to win (and the data clearly shows they do), then they have to nominate someone who shares their values and is able to provide a clear vision for a better future. Obama said it best himself in 2000 when he was running for Congress against a strong incumbent: “Seniority is important, but I think vision and imagination and hard work is more important.”

2 replies »

  1. “Whichever candidate shares your values the most is the one you should vote for.” And that would be Trump for me.
    Experience in government is overrated. Hillary had all the credentials you say? She had the credentials of “dripping in corruption” much like Biden has. Being in the government has allowed them to profit from selling their name and position. That needs to be taken into consideration when looking for a candidate.
    I’m picturing a Biden/Michelle ticket which checks a lot of boxes for the Dems. Michelle being the first female VP and black and there to help Biden speak and get Barack back in the game. Not that I’d vote for them.


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