Democratic candidates attack each other over who is best suited to win in November, but their arguments rely more on anecdotes than hard evidence. Liam Glen writes on the problems in measuring electability.
With the Iowa Caucus only a few weeks away, the Democratic field has become increasingly contentious. First and foremost among the areas of dispute – not surprising given that it is a top issue among primary voters – is electability.
Each candidate’s followers have their own particular explanation for why their favored politician is in the best position to beat Donald Trump in November, but the fiercest debate falls along the familiar centrist-progress fault lines.
More moderate observers believe that only a figure like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg can unite the country. Divisive left-wing policies would risk alienating large parts of the electorate, while someone willing to reach across the aisle could win Trump supporters.
Progressives, however, argue that establishment centrists are too out of touch with the average American to win. Instead, they argue that a left-wing candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would energize Democratic-leaning demographics that usually do not get out to vote – such as young people or racial minorities – while their economic policies would win back white blue-collar voters who went for Trump in 2016.
This is obviously an important debate. There would hardly be any point in the Democrats nominating a candidate just to lose in the general election. But at the same time, these arguments are lacking in hard evidence. They make dramatic claims, but without anything to back them up, the debate is meaningless.
Incalculable Electoral Math
Elections are complicated. An extremely large number of people will take an extremely large number of factors into account when deciding whether to vote for one candidate or another, or whether to vote at all. Under the right circumstances, any of the Democratic field has the potential to win. All things being equal, though, some candidates are probably better-suited than others. The problem is determining who they are.
The most obvious way to figure out what the voters want is to simply ask them. Hypothetical general election matchups do not have much variation across candidates. Biden and Sanders tend to do slightly better, but this is largely believed to the result of their high name recognition.
Given the country’s hyperpartisanship, this makes sense. Most voters are either dead set for or against Trump, not matter who the Democrats nominate. But that does not mean that electability does not matter at all. There may only be a small sliver of swing voters, but they are the ones who will make the difference.
If we could quantify how charismatic or inspirational a particular candidate is, or to what degree voters want a return to normalcy versus revolutionary change, we might be able to get somewhere. But as others have pointed out, we cannot definitely measure any of those factors. Instead, all we can simply rely on guesses.
If we can no longer argue over which candidate is more electable, what can we do? The obvious answer is to discuss their actual merits as candidates, something that often gets obscured in electability debates.
Rather than just saying that Bernie Sanders’s left-wing foreign policy will turn off voters, Democrats actually argue about whether his ideas are right or not. Rather than just saying that Pete Buttigieg is too inexperienced to do well in a general election, they can actually discuss what the necessary qualifications for the presidency should be.
And, of course, the argument about electability can never die down completely. There is nothing necessarily wrong with well-reasoned arguments about which candidate is most likely to win. We may not have enough evidence to tell for sure, but educated guesses are at least possible. Above all, however, they must come with a heavy dose of humility. There is nothing more embarrassing than making bold political predictions, only to be proven wrong in a few months.