Is One Presidential Candidate More Electable Than the Other?

Pundits are full of assertions on winning White House bids, but they are just opinions and nothing more. Let's try to avoid the 'electability trap.'

Lincoln Mitchell
February 26, 2020

For the last 18 months or so, various Democratic candidates have vied for their party’s presidential nomination. What has been a central theme of the election thus far? The question of electability. Most Democratic voters rank electability at the top of their criteria for selecting a candidate. However, the only thing we know for sure about electability is that we don’t know anything about electability. And this has been true for several election cycles.

Pundits, journalists and politicians confidently assert their views about electability, but these theories are based on narrative rather than data. Moreover, they are very frequently wrong. For example, both presidents Trump and Obama were viewed as unelectable only a year before being elected. Similarly, several candidates viewed as having the right combination of political skill and demographic background to win the presidency, such as Kamala Harris this cycle, Marco Rubio in 2016 and even going back to Al Gore in 1988, underperformed at the polls.

Another problem with the electability discourse is that it is built on self-serving assertions that are empirically untested or untestable. For example, the argument that Mike Bloomberg is the most electable candidate rests on both his centrist policies and his enormous war chest. It is an appealing argument, especially if you like Bloomberg’s policies. Yet we know that swing voters, particularly in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are not centrists who want a candidate just slightly to the left of Donald Trump. Rather they are voters with specific combinations of positions and identities that rarely dovetail with those of a socially liberal, economically conservative, political and financial insider. Bloomberg’s wealth makes him a stronger candidate than others, but anybody who thinks that Donald Trump will not have the money to campaign aggressively against Bloomberg is misinformed.

A tautology that is frequently used to explain electability is that candidates who win primaries prove their electability, but this too doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny. Bernie Sanders has had a string of impressive primary and caucus victories, but there is no logical reason to think that winning a plurality of votes in unrepresentative low turnout contests has any bearing on which Democrat has the best chance of carrying those states, or any others, in November. Besides, this view implies that by nominating the candidate who wins the most primaries, each party always nominates the most electable candidate, though it is not at all obvious that recent losing Democratic nominees like John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis and Republicans like Mitt Romney or Bob Dole were the most electable their party had to offer.

Thus, when a candidate, or their supporters, makes a case for their electability, it is almost always just a thinly veiled attempt to promote that candidate. Similarly, when pundits or others are telling us that one candidate or another is unelectable, we should take this for what it is, an informed opinion and nothing more, while also remembering how bad pundits have been in recent decades at predicting or even understanding electability.


A man speaking to a microphone

Lincoln Mitchell is an adjunct associate research scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and teaches in the political science department. His newest book is San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third-Place Baseball Team. Follow him on Twitter: @LincolnMitchell.

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.