Presidential Electability Doesn’t Exist


Presidential elections in the United States are odd birds.

They receive disproportionate media attention, for one. This is for a number of reasons, but given that the power of the federal executive has been consistently increasing for a century, it’s at least somewhat understandable that people want to talk about them.

Talking about them, though, is difficult. Any individual political system tends to last about a generation and change before something comes along to shift the paradigm. As a result, drawing parallels between recent elections and even those in the mid-20th century is nearly impossible.

Clearly defined swing states haven’t been around that long, for example. Literally no state has given its electoral votes to the same party in every presidential election since 1964. And indeed, the only state to back the winner in every election from 1960 to 2004 was…Missouri.

Part of this is because the parties used to have less polarized platforms, for one. Scrolling through xkcd’s information-dense timeline of congressional ideology makes it clear that there was overlap, rather than daylight, between the center wings of both parties. And the New Deal coalition, for example, managed to be so enduringly successful due to a marriage of economic justice and racism (and the breakup of the coalition was at least in part attributable to the disintegration, no pun intended, of the Solid South).

Even the way we elect our presidents has changed dramatically since elections that weren’t that long ago. George McGovern, a name certain folks like to use to spook voters into supporting centrist candidates, ran in a cycle where 20 states held no primaries or caucuses at all. His immediate predecessor as Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, did not even contest any primaries before going on to win a majority of delegates at the convention.

All of this is to say that we have a very, very small sample size from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. Even if you include 1964 and 1968, which have some value in very limited contexts, your universe is fourteen elections.

But given the cultural headspace we devote to presidential elections (despite the backsliding we’ve done in the state legislative arena over the last decade), people still turn to them for guidance. It’s understandable when the stakes are as high as they are (although whether they should be is its own question). But even still, almost three years on, the amount of reliance on individual one-off trends in 2016, especially applied to this upcoming election cycle, is frighteningly high.

There’s an explanation, of course: 2016 was an exceptionally close election. But what that means is that almost anything that had an effect was, indeed, a but-for cause of the result (that is, if it hadn’t happened, the result would likely have been different). Comey? Probably. Clinton’s high negatives? Probably. Rain in Detroit all day? Probably. Complacency? Probably. Voter suppression in Wisconsin? Probably. Not visiting Wisconsin? Probably. The Electoral College? Probably. Tim Kaine? Probably.

But what does any of that tell us about 2020? What information should we glean from these dozens and dozens of tipping points during the upcoming (or, really, current) primary season?

I would argue that the answer is nothing.

There are so many different factors that affect electoral performance, particularly in terms of what might increase or decrease turnout among certain voters or subsets of voters, that trying to prioritize this turnout driver over that turnout driver as a voter is virtually impossible. And we project so many of our own biases onto the candidates we like and want to see succeed, but in virtually every scenario (and moreso at the presidential level), the candidate and their staff are going to pursue their strategy, ultimately, without any signal from you except your vote.

And here’s the thing: we think that there are baseline principles about what we should and shouldn’t do in light of how they worked in 2016. But we’re living in a very different political world than we were in October 2016. Not that the country has lurched in one direction or another, but there are far more politically engaged people than there were four years ago. Do we have a sense of who’s turning out to vote? Some, because there have been elections since then. (The midterm turnout in 2018 was almost 14 points higher than it was in 2014, and the last time midterm turnout was that high, in 1914, it was because the only people who could vote were men.)

But we’ve never seen this political climate as it interacts with a presidential election. We don’t know how that bump in midterm turnout translates to presidential elections or not. More specifically: Many of the folks who voted in 2018 were first-time voters, and many were voters who were previously presidential-only. The latter group tells us very little about presidential turnout in 2020, and it’s unclear, despite anecdotal expectations that 2020 turnout will include many new voters, whether the 2018 first-time voters provide a roadmap.

Or, to take an example from the list above, how do you think nominating Tim Kaine this time around is going to play? Probably poorly, although it depends a lot on the nominee. But who would be less excited to vote as a result? How much of an effect do you think it has in 2020? We don’t even know how much of an effect it had in 2016. Our baseline is nonexistent. Our sample size is zero.

This is not to say we know absolutely nothing. The entirety of the presidential ballgame in the last five elections has been played between 45 and 53 percent. As the parties continue to move away from each other ideologically, those numbers are likely to calcify even further without a major turnout paradigm shift. And we do know that the news media as a whole tends to prefer narratives of “balance”, which are likely to even out any candidate’s chance against any other. (This, of course, helped create a disparity of roughly $1.7 billion in free media coverage in Trump’s favor in the 2016 general election campaign.)

Taking all of this together, I think the broader conclusion has to be that our takeaways can’t be about what we reactively should and shouldn’t do. By that time, the moment will have already passed.

Instead, I have one takeaway from 2016, and it’s a “can” rather than a “should”:

Any candidate who wins a presidential primary can win the general election.

I’m going to say that again:

Any candidate who wins a presidential primary can win the general election. Truthfully, I don’t really see how you can take the result in 2016 and disagree.

Should this be true? I’m agnostic, but I bet the first reaction for many of you is “probably not”. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been told all our lives that elections, as an expression of a nation that is Unquestionably Good, are the way that we ensure that only qualified and worthy people can serve in public office. That textbook civics principle is, of course, directly at odds with this idea.

But the idea that we can have any sense of how electability will actually manifest in 14 months and change is ludicrous. This time four years ago, despite a surprisingly strong polling surge by Bernie Sanders to almost 20%, Clinton was maintaining her poll standing well above 50%, which of course meant that the primary campaign would be a breeze. And of course, Republicans were in danger of ceding the presidency permanently to Democrats due to the unbreakable blue wall states. (As an aside, in the last three non-incumbent elections (2000, 2008, 2016), the winner of the general election came out of arguably the more contentious primary season each time. Again, with such a small sample size, I hesitate to say that a contentious primary doesn’t hurt, but it’s clearly not at all fatal.)

Plenty of ink has been spilled on how the electability argument provides cover for racism and sexism; impedes, if not destroys, conversations on actual policy; and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that both restrains progress and makes people feel excluded. I know plenty of people who have acknowledged this despite continuing to worry about electability. And that’s a start, and perhaps a logical compromise to make in your head. We want to call out our biases, but what’s the point of winning elections if you can’t win elections?

But my point here is even deeper than that. I think that in the system that we have right now, there is no such thing as a nominee who can’t win elections. There is literally no upside to invoking electability in a primary fight. Despite my reservations with him, Pete Buttigieg correctly pointed out at the last debates that the GOP was likely to brand any nominee, no matter how mild and centrist, as a socialist in the general election campaign. How much better do you think any of the centrist candidates will fare against that attack than any of the ones on the left wing?

And these concerns about electability are so pervasive that even in postmortems, pricing them in leads to even less clarity. One of the major relitigations of 2016 I’ve seen is that of whether the 57-43 split between Sanders and Clinton was an accurate representation of the party’s ideological breakdown or not. Many folks believe that Sanders collected anti-Clinton votes from across the ideological spectrum and that his affirmative following is much smaller. Others believe that Sanders had the coalition to win outright but for folks who voted for Clinton or stayed home because they thought he had no chance of winning. The list on each side is massive.

From here, it’s a short step from this conclusion to the conclusion that median voter theorem holds little to no value. Another counterintuitive result, perhaps, when general election candidates have been blatantly diving toward the center for generations, even longer than the current ideological split between the parties existed. But throughout that time, the candidate that was considered more centrist still lost plenty of elections, and the correlation that does exist is not strong enough, within this small sample, to be statistically significant. On the flipside, Democrats rode massive turnout operations to huge legislative gains in 2018 (to say nothing about the special elections, including in Alabama), much in the same way that 2016, which was the second-highest turnout election since 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, the GOP strategy of courting unlikely voters appeared to pay off in just barely the ways they needed it to.

Does winning independents matter? It can. But is that only because the candidates insist on emphasizing independents? Is it because independents aren’t actually truly centrist, but serve as a good metric for measuring unlikely voter turnout?

Or, to put it another way, maybe this is the paradigm shift we’ve been waiting for, after a handful of elections where 37 states (and DC) voted the same way every time. The country skews consistently to the left of its representatives (and referendum results bear this out), but between voter suppression and uncaptured eligible voters, the GOP coalition is still, for now, large enough to assert themselves. And perhaps this electability talk is part of what’s doing the gatekeeping: on some level, responding to these arguments often feels like you have to have a political science degree to even hold your own.

Does electability matter? I would argue there’s a very important place for it: in a general election, where the two-party system forces you into a mindset of harm reduction. (Or, better yet, a mindset of agitating for ranked-choice voting.) But until we get to the general, vote for the person you want to see govern.

Ask, with your vote, for 100% of what you want. Eventually, the candidates will follow.

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