The Four Factors That Determine Electability

With Donald Trump running for reelection in 2020, it is understandable that for many Democrats, the most important question on their mind is which primary candidate is best positioned to beat him. In other words, the whole question of electability looms large right now.

The research group Avalanche conducted an interesting poll to determine the level of impact electability is having on Democratic voters. Initially they asked respondents who they would vote for if the primary were held today. Later on in the survey, they asked Democrats to imagine they had a magic wand and could make any of the candidates president. Who would they chose? Here are the results.

At this point in the race, the two candidates affected most by voters’ perceptions about electability are Biden (positively) and Warren (negatively). In the “magic wand” scenario, Warren leads both Biden and Sanders by small margins.

The problem with electability is that no one really understands what it means. I would suggest that there are four factors that influence how voters see the electability of candidates.

1. Name recognition

This early in the race, voters tend assign electability to the candidate who is best known. That is why it is important to take polling data at this point with a grain of salt. As the field of Democratic contenders narrows and the remaining candidates become better known, name recognition will fade as a factor.

2. Bias

The poll from Avalanche referenced above also delved into which factors are influencing electability. They found that, while Democratic voters don’t doubt the capabilities of female candidates, they doubt that voters will elect a woman. The same bias was not found on issues of age, race, sexual orientation, or ideology. It is very possible voters are overcompensating because one of the most qualified Democrats to run for president in recent history happened to be a woman who lost to Donald Trump.

There is another kind of bias that affects the electability argument and was demonstrated by the reaction of many liberals to Joe Biden prior to his official announcement.

Over the past five years, the Democratic Party has seemed to race leftward so fast that its recent standard-bearers are considered no longer qualified to lead it. Bill Clinton? An embarrassment not welcome on the campaign trail. Barack Obama? A neoliberal whose half-measures should not be repeated. Nor does the new crowd of Democrats qualify by the stringent standards of ideological purity: Cory Booker has ties to Wall Street; Kamala Harris was a prosecutor; Beto O’Rourke once mused about cutting Social Security.

But nobody is thought of as more retrograde than Joe Biden — “a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party,” Politico wrote last year.

Of course, Biden’s dominance in the polls so far came as a shock to a lot of those people, particularly the level of support for him among African Americans. That is because we often base our assumptions about electability on our own ideological bias. We tend to project our own views onto a majority of the electorate and assume that the candidate we favor is also the most electable.

3. Self-perpetuating feedback loop

The media identifies a front-runner and so voters come to view them as electable and tell pollsters they support that candidate. As a result, that candidate leads in the polls and gains more media attention. While neither is currently the frontrunner, that is precisely how Martin Longman described the increase in support for both Warren and Buttigieg recently.

4. Winners are electable

That might sound like the kind of statement to which the most appropriate response is “duh.” But to explain why it is important we should note that, looking at the 45 past and current U.S. presidents, 44 of them have been white and 45 of them male. Given that history, it is understandable why voters would assume that a white male candidate is more electable.

The one exception to a white male president was Barack Obama. In January 2008, not many people thought he was electable either—including the majority of African Americans. But then he did something that changed the whole electability dynamic: he won the Iowa caucuses rather handily. The rest, as they say, is history.

Each of those four factors affect the candidates differently. But the one who is most advantaged by all of them right now is the white male candidate with the highest level of name recognition who is currently the front-runner: Joe Biden. But as other candidates gain more name recognition with surges that alter the feedback loop, voters will shift their views about electability. If one or more of the candidates pulls out a surprise in the early primaries, that will have an even more dramatic impact. The factors that determine electability are rather volatile.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.