What is electability? (part 1 of 2)

Electability. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot these days. But what is it, really? How much does it matter? And can anyone be said to truly have it?

In this diary, I will describe what I see as the different aspects of this nebulous “electability” quality.  In a subsequent diary, I will try to objectively assess how the various candidates stack up on each aspect.  Note that I am not trying to argue that electability should be the only criterion by which we measure candidates; this is merely an attempt to systematically think through what electability means, and what we should be looking for if electability were our only concern.

Why Electability?


Let me start by explaining why electability matters, and how we should think about it.

“Well, duh,” you might say. “Obviously we should pick someone who will be able to win. We just need to pick the best candidate among those who can win.”  All true, as far as it goes.  But I submit to you that one cannot just separate candidates into binary camps of “Will Win” and “Won’t Win” – the prediction business is much too difficult for that. All sorts of events – wars, economic crises, scandals – could intervene and move the outcome by a couple percentage points; our best candidate (from the standpoint of electability) could still lose, and our worst candidate theoretically could eke out a win, given the right set of circumstances.   Instead, we should judge electability by probabilities: from very good chances of winning to rather poor chances, and every gradation in between. Different people might rank candidates differently, too, but we need to acknowledge that there aren’t any hard and fast lines between Winner and Loser.

A couple additional reasons why we should think about degrees of electability: mandates and coattails. Even if it were possible for two candidates to be guaranteed to win, with everything else equal (policies, leadership, etc.), I’d rather have the one that can win with, say, 57% of the vote rather than the one that only is able to win with 51%, because that gives the candidate a better base from which to affect policy, and might bring in a stronger Congress for him or her to work with.

Electability in 2012


I believe electability is particularly important in 2012. Here’s why: we all agree that this is an incredibly important election, with a lot at stake in how this country responds to the various crises that have emerged over the last few years, and an opponent who certainly would take us in exactly the wrong directions. With so much on the table, even a 10% additional chance of winning would prove massively valuable. How much are you willing to raise the risk of another Obama term – in order to have a nominee who agrees with you on minor issue X? That is a calculation every primary voter has to make.

On the other hand, the Republican field is actually remarkably close together on the biggest issues of the day (repealing ObamaCare, the budget/entitlements, and abortion are the top-tier ones in my book).  There are policy differences to be sure, but it is testament to Paul Ryan (among others) that we have achieved something of a consensus among our potential nominees on entitlements and spending.  They are unanimous on repeal of ObamaCare.  Some candidates might emphasize their opposition to abortion more than others, but there is no Rudy Giuliani this time around.  With the differences (at least on policy) between our nominees relatively small compared to previous primaries, and especially small when you compare those differences with the distance to the far left where Obama is, factors such as electability are magnified.

The mandate and coattails effects also seems particularly relevant in 2012. The next GOP president is going to have to deal with the explosion in entitlements, particularly Medicare. Any solution will be controversial, to say the least. How much easier would it be if he had the political wind at his back, so to speak, both in terms of voter mandate, and also in terms of strength in Congress? Also, there are an unusual number of potentially competitive Senate races in swing states this year – OH, MI, WI, MO, VA, PA, FL, NV, NM. And let’s not forget that we’re trying to keep out Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts! All of our Senate candidates would benefit from a nominee who can win with room to spare, as opposed to one who can only win in a photo finish.

What is Electability?


In this section, I’ll discuss various factors that go into electability. They vary in importance; the first three I’d say are the major ones, and then I’ll go through a bevy of smaller factors.

Ability to win over swing Obama voters

Fairly straightforward. We lost a lot of voters between 2004 and 2008; we need to get them back.

One thing to keep in mind is that, relative to the usual Democratic baseline, Obama overperformed among minorities, among college-educated whites (think suburbs of Denver, Raleigh, Philadelphia, and northern Virginia), and in some areas like the German/Scandinavian belt stretching from northwest Ohio to Wisconsin and over to the Dakotas and eastern Nebraska (somehow skipping Minnesota – convention effect? maybe they liked Palin’s accent there? who knows?). You can see a map of this here.  These groups make up a disproportionate number of the voters that swung from 2004 to 2008; a candidate that can particularly appeal to these demographics would have a leg up in this electability factor.

How does a candidate appeal to such swing voters? One, convince them that your policies are better and that you are qualified to lead.  Two, make it seem like you share their general values and aren’t too “extreme”.  For the former, we should be looking for the candidate’s ability to persuade people on the merits of his principles and abilities, and also for a record of success that the candidate can point to as evidence for his policies’ effectiveness.  Basically, can you make people believe that you know what you are talking about?  For the latter, it’s primarily about reputation and style.  The impressionistic view that people have of the candidates’ ideologies, personalities, and demeanors might not be very accurate (nor relevant to how well the candidate might actually do as president), but it does matter in how they vote.

Keeping McCain voters unified and energized

For pure electability purposes, I rank this as slightly lower in importance than the first factor.  For one thing, there are fewer McCain voters that might be lost than Obama voters that might be won*.  But more importantly, much of the work on this front is already accomplished due to Obama’s unpopularity – the anti-Obama vote from the right will be huge and this will be true no matter who the nominee is.  (For instance, note that the demographic that swung most towards the GOP in 2008 was the rural white working class, particularly in Appalachia.  All polling indicates that Obama is still mightily unpopular among these voters, so any competent GOP candidate should retain these votes.)

It’s important to point out that this does not just refer to the conservative base. Our 46% share in 2008 comprised conservatives and centrists alike; fans of McCain’s mavericky moderation as well as Palin’s most devoted disciples. Folks like George Will and Ross Douthat aren’t popular around these parts, I know, but the nominee will want them aboard his train, since there are definitely many Republican voters that are influenced by voices like theirs. Call them whatever names you want, but you cannot disavow their votes. (One additional thing to keep in mind: if you lose a conservative voter, he probably sits at home. If you lose a moderate voter, he might sit at home, or he might vote for Obama – a bigger loss.)

*: Here are some numbers for you. Obama won the popular vote roughly 70M-60M. If no voters change sides but our candidate is able to excite the base and turn out 15% more voters (which would be miraculous), we still lose. If our candidate does not pull out more base voters, yet convinces just 7.5% of Obama voters to switch sides, we win.

Vulnerability to personal attack and caricature

We all know that Obama will be looking to attack with his hundreds of millions of campaign funds, since he will be trying to take the focus off his record.  We also know that his allies in the media will gladly play along with the narratives that the Obama campaign tries to spin about our nominee. Now, all of our nominees will face roughly the same attacks on the policy fronts, branded as protecting corporations and the wealthy, against the environment and poor people on Medicare, etc.  But there will be personal and character attacks as well, as the Democrats try to paint a caricature of the GOP nominee, and these will vary by candidate. Some will be easier to caricature than others; we should be aware of each candidate’s vulnerabilities on this front.

Polling Evidence

There’s a lot of overlap between this and the other factors, and the race is still quite early and the vague impressions that Americans have of the candidates will inevitably change as we get closer to November. However, we do have some objective data points to work with, and they shouldn’t be ignored completely.

Prior Performance in Elections

Another objective data point. How well did the various candidates do in their previous electoral runs, relative to the generic Republican baseline?  The bigger the races, the better; winning 53% in a blueish district  is more impressive than winning 53% in a red state.

Candidate Discipline

Basically, the ability to stay on message and avoid gaffes. Obviously a valuable skill.

Debating Skill

Probably not as important as some think (George W. Bush won two elections, after all), and has very little to do with one’s actual performance as President, but it still has some use when it comes to getting elected.


A necessary evil, I suppose. I rate this as a minor factor since the eventual nominee will have gained fundraising prowess as he (she?) rises in the primary polls, and once he becomes the nominee, the entire party apparatus will be at his disposal, so differences between candidates will probably be small in the end.

Crisis Management

There’s always going to be the unexpected during a campaign. In 2008, when the Lehman bankruptcy hit, McCain didn’t handle it particularly well and that was the beginning of the end. Can the candidate think on his feet and come up with reassuring responses when events intervene and all eyes are on him?

Swing States

Does the candidate have local ties to a swing state that might give him a boost there, independent of all the other factors?


Stay tuned for part 2 of this diary, in which I’ll discuss individual candidates and how I see them stacking up in the various aspects of electability.  In the meantime, here’s a summary of the argument I was trying to make above:

  • Electability isn’t as simple as listing “Can Win” vs. “Can’t Win”; one needs to talk about gradations.
  • Electability seems particularly important this year, compared to past years.
  • There are many different factors that go into electability; one can’t judge it on a single axis.