Sense and Electability

Credit: Wikipedia, Iain Davidson

This past summer, I spent a week with my extended family on vacation in the Finger Lakes. While we all lead diverse lives in three different states, we all have one thing in common: we detest Donald Trump. Naturally, the Democratic Primary came up in conversation, and I heard that oh-so-common refrain: “America will never elect a socialist president. We need to choose someone who is guaranteed to win a general election.”

Despite the fact that polling shows all the major primary candidates would win a general against Trump, I found myself face-to-face with the unruly beast of “electability.” What is this electability? Why is it so important?  

Following the upset of the 2016 election, the Democratic Party has one primary objective: to get Donald Trump out of office. There has been some dissent in the most reliable way to achieve this goal, however. While some candidates campaign on ideology and appeal, pundits and voters alike appeal to a candidate’s “electability,” judging how likely they are to get into the White House. I am here to implore you: do not think this way. Electability is not a real, quantitative science. Rather, it is our job as voters to have substantial ideas about what a politician should be.

Contrary to popular belief, electability is not actually a legitimate science. First of all, there is a very limited data set: only 58 presidential elections have been held in American history. More importantly, the entire US population (de jure, but not de facto) has been eligible to vote for only 25 of them. The concept is based on subjectivity and personal preference. Maybe after 58 more elections there will be more definitive trends in electoral victory, but at the moment, there is an undeniable lack of concrete and peer-reviewed research on electability.

Let’s look at two very important case studies: the two most recent presidents. Donald Trump and Barack Obama. The Trump campaign is arguably the least electable in US history: Trump as a candidate had no political experience. He is brash, racist, inflammatory, and racked with scandals such as the 2005 Access Hollywood tape. After the tape broke in October 2016, analysts and pundits alike claimed that his campaign was tanked. Furthermore, his opponent Hillary Clinton was advertised as “the most qualified presidential candidate in history,” endorsed by several former presidents, and had years of experience. And yet, Donald Trump secured the White House with a decisive 304 electoral votes.

Barack Obama serves as an additional example of an unelectable yet successful presidential candidate. Given the (limited) data set, the most electable president is a white male, as white males won the 55 prior elections to 2008. Compared to his opponent John McCain, Obama was not electable and faced significant pressure during the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. And yet, he spent eight years in the White House.

Obama serves as an important outlier to the sinister rule that electability creates: it reinforces a deeply rooted American electoral bias against women and minorities In fact, a study following the 2016 election found that sexism played a major role in Clinton’s loss (among several other political factors). When people talk about choosing the most electable candidate, it serves as a cover to instead say that we should choose another white male to be the nominee. Arguments for electability reinforce the status quo and prevent nontraditional candidates from even having a shot, regardless of their policies.

Most importantly, electability is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we convince ourselves that a candidate is the most electable, it becomes the sole reason that we support them; and then as more and more people believe that this candidate is electable, the more people support them. The only reason they became popular is that they are perceived as electable.

You should never choose a candidate based on your judgment of their electability, especially in a primary. First of all, it’s pointless. We, as voters, do not have the tools nor responsibility to make any semblance of an accurate guess as to who would be the most popular, and if we learn anything from 2016, it is that polling is not a reliable source of information. Furthermore, the more we support someone based solely on their electability, the more successful that candidate is going to become. Joe Biden is a great example of this: he entered the race late, his policies are watered down (compared to the other candidates in the field), and he consistently gaffs and misspeaks during public appearances. So, what would motivate people to support him? It’s because we—both the Democratic base and the establishment—still view him as the most electable candidate (old, white, male, served in a previous administration), and so he leads in the polls. 

The merit of a political candidate should *almost* always be strictly based on their policies. Granted, if there are glaring skeletons in the closet, that is a cause for concern, but especially in a primary, policies are the meat and bones of any candidate.

I think it’s easy for us to forget why we get involved with politics at all for several reasons. It’s very easy for us to gamify politics. It’s all about winning the election, getting the majority, putting ourselves in a good position for the next election, scouting the rising stars in the Democratic field. We lose the forest for the trees. But it’s essential to remind ourselves of the point of any political venture: to improve the lives of humans.

This blind spot comes from the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who are going to read this article lead lives of privilege (myself included). Yes, the outcome of an election may affect minor things—how much taxes will cost comes to mind—but it’s not that important. And that’s the reason that we find moderate candidates so electable: we don’t have that much to gain from changing the status quo, so why bother? For the accountant father of three in a suburb of Philadelphia, Bernie’s plans for wealth redistribution and criminal justice reform don’t matter that much, but Joe Biden is a familiar face and a welcome replacement for that mean orange man in the White House now.

When I stereotype the accountant father, however, I fall into the trap of the electability argument that makes it so compelling and, simultaneously, the strongest evidence against it. The simple fact is this: no one knows how other people think. When a person says candidate X is most electable, the basic premise is that either a) the person likes X, and everyone else will like X for the same reasons, or b) the person thinks that candidate X would be the most appealing for how he thinks everyone else thinks about a candidate. This is superficial, ignorant, and conceited.

At the end of the day, don’t support someone based on electability. It’s a slippery slope and it reinforces the status quo. Instead, especially during the primary, we should support whichever candidate has the most potential to improve the lives of American citizens. It is not our job, as the electorate, to guess how everyone else feels. It’s our job to choose someone that appeals to us the most, and then go vote for them.