Electability is Bunk

      3 Comments on Electability is Bunk

It’s the season to start choosing presidential nominees, and people are talking about electability again. But Your Humble Blogger has come to believe that electability is bunk.

Back in 2003, I wrote up each of the candidates for my Party’s Presidential nomination. I specifically avoided writing about whether the candidates were electable or not. I wrote:

I do not want to talk at all about electability yet. I will, ultimately, look at that before I cast my vote; I don’t dismiss it as a valid topic for discussion. It’s not the only topic for discussion, though, and if you want to talk about it now, I strongly encourage you to find a site where that is being encouraged. I just don’t want to talk about it yet. I figure that if I don’t think about that part of things at all between now and Labor Day, it’ll still leave five months to think about it before anybody has to cast a vote in a primary or caucus, and that should be plenty of time.

Four years later, I wrote about electability again:

The Party has to decide (a) who would make a good President, (2) who would match up well with the other candidate or candidates, and (iii) who would move the Party in the direction we want to go (taking into account the effect of top of the ticket on the other candidates. Generally, I take electability into account. I do not want the next President to be from the Other Party. The fact that all of my Party’s candidates are far superior (in my estimate) to all of the Other Party’s candidates is not a coincidence. On the other hand, if I am feeling confident, I will likely prefer a candidate I judge to have a, oh, 56% chance of winning and extraordinary policies, instincts and abilities to a candidate that I judge to have a 59% chance of winning and quite good policies, instincts and abilities. But those percentages are impossible to judge with that kind of accuracy, aren’t they?

In fact, I now think those percentages are impossible to judge with any kind of accuracy at all. None. So now I do dismiss electability, and I will not take it in to account. And around the internet, people keep talking about whether particular candidates are electable or not, which are more electable than others. And I am tempted to comment every time in every place that electability is bunk, and keep doing it until everybody agrees with me. So to keep from doing that, I’ve decided to post it here, on my own Tohu Bohu where it belongs.

Political scientists stuff study this stuff and argue about it a lot, and there really is almost no evidence that it's possible for a party to increase their chances of winning the President by choosing the most ‘electable’ candidate. For one thing, the evidence is very strong that the actual candidates and campaigns make very little difference in the outcome, compared to (a) the state of the country, (2) the popularity of the incumbent (which is related to that) and (iii) how long the incumbent Party has held the office. Those things matter a lot to the outcome; everything else matters at the margins, and not predictably. In the end, almost everyone who would vote for any R will vote for whoever the R is, and almost everyone who would vote for the D will vote for whoever the D is, and of the people who want, most of them will vote for or against the incumbent based on what they think of him, and whoever the remaining few percent vote for (or whether they don't vote) isn't based on policy positions.

Specifically, the discussion in polisci is whether a candidate viewed as on the extremes does or does not lose perhaps two points in the outcome compared to one who is not viewed that way. Current thinking seems to be that it does not make even that much difference. But more importantly, being perceived as an extremist does not correlate with the candidate's actual policy views—I don't think it's possible to predict at this time whether Sen. Harris or for that matter Sen. Biden would be viewed as a ‘far left’ nominee by the time November 2020 comes around.

Finally (I hope) the primary system effectively makes it so candidates who aren't ‘electable’ don't become the nominee—by the time the nomination occurs the nominee will have got the votes of moderates and progressives, rural and urban and suburban voters, men and women, red state residents and blue state residents. Any candidate that is so bad at appealing widely to the populace as to prevent them winning in November will be unable to win over the long year leading up to it.

All of which means that you are much better off supporting whichever candidates you think would be good at doing the job, rather than the ones you think are more likely to win in November. And unless your job requires it, there's no particular benefit to you, the candidates, the Party, or the nation in choosing a single candidate at this point rather than supporting several candidates that you think would be good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Electability is Bunk

  1. irilyth

    I agree to the extent that I think that a good way to determine if someone is electable is to have an election and see if they get elected, which a primary election is certainly one way to do. People who have successfully gotten elected in the past also seem like they have some positive indicators there, but really, it’s somewhat hard to argue that the primary electorate somehow elected someone in the primary election who was unelectable.

    I do have the sense that while there aren’t a lot of people who will vote for some D but not every possible D, or some R but not every possible R, there are at least some people who will bother to go out and vote at all for some D but not every possible D, and likewise R. But that’s just a vague impression from hearing people blather about stuff.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      To your first point—exactly. And since we have a whole series of primary elections in states with different urban/rural mixes, demographic mixes of all kinds, sizes, media landscapes, etc, it’s even harder to argue that the winner of most of those primaries is unelectable in a general election.

      As for your second point, I have two responses. First, there are in an absolute sense a lot of people who will not vote for President if the Party they usually wind up voting for nominates someone they don’t like, it’s a tiny percentage of the voting populace. Now, one percent is potentially the difference between winning and losing, so I don’t mean to dismiss it. But people who vote for President mostly vote every cycle once they start (often not until they are 30ish).

      My other response is that I have come to entirely discount most of the blathering, including to be honest my own (which is why I don’t do as much of it here). Many of the people who are currently saying that they couldn’t possibly imagine voting for Senator Harris, for instance, or Senator Booker, or Secretary Castro or Governor Inslee, will eventually be able to both imagine and vote for that person if he or she is the candidate in November. And others, like many of my more radical friends who refused to vote for Hilary Clinton, would also refuse to vote for Senator Warren or even Senator Sanders by the time November comes around, just as they refused to vote for Vice-President Gore or then-Governor Clinton.


      1. Vardibidian Post author

        I want to add about turnout—the point is that the feeling about the incumbent President or Party overwhelms the difference between candidates in the other Party. There will be some people who will turn out to vote for one candidate but stay home for another, but for every one of those there will be many who will turn out to vote because of how they feel about Our Only President. And that is very likely already set, unless some actual event either restores a lot of people’s faith in his ability to govern or destroys the faith of a lot of his supporters, or perhaps convinces a lot of people that it doesn’t matter at all.



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