Assessing electability: Like nailing Jell-O to a wall

Democrats are trying to figure out who is the best to beat Trump. It’s a difficult task



— Trump’s victory in 2016 presents a great counter-argument to the idea that campaign professionals and pundits can confidently determine in advance who is electable to the presidency and who is not.

— Many presidents beyond Trump have seemed unelectable at various points of their ultimately successful campaigns.

— As Democrats consider who has the best chance against Trump, they will have to sort through different kinds of electability arguments, any one of which may be right (or wrong), and only one of which will actually be tested.

The perils of determining who is electable, and who is not

“A very conservative Republican can’t win in a national election.”Gerald Ford, speaking about Ronald Reagan to the New York Times, March 2, 1980.

“I think he’s got a big electability problem.” Jerry Brown, speaking about Bill Clinton, during a March 15, 1992 Democratic presidential primary debate.

We’re not exactly sure when the awkward word “electability” really entered the national lexicon, but the concept — voters and party bigwigs making a pre-election assessment about who is likeliest to win — is surely as old as democracy itself.

Concerns about electability are dotted throughout American history, and have sometimes led party leaders to consider alternatives to nomination frontrunners — alternatives who would go on to become historically important presidents. A couple of examples: Sen. William H. Seward (R-NY) entered the race for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination as a favorite, but questions about his perceived weakness in crucial states “formed a growing cloud on the horizon of his anticipated nomination,” wrote Civil War-era historian James McPherson. “Pragmatists from all regions and politicians from the doubtful states combined in a stop-Seward movement,” McPherson wrote. Seward led on the first ballot at the Republican convention but by the third the nomination went to a man who emerged from a position as “the darkest of horses” to become the Republican nominee: Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest of all the presidents. Electability concerns about Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-OH) also informed the decision of some Republican leaders to draft Dwight D. Eisenhower into the 1952 presidential race.

“Electability” is clearly on the minds of Democrats as they determine who gets the nod to challenge President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee seeking a second term in the White House.

A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post’s Kevin Robillard and Amanda Terkel explored the idea of electability in the Democratic Party primary. It’s something everyone seems to care about, but few can persuasively define or determine:

The perception of which candidates stand the best chance of toppling Trump will play a major role in deciding who ultimately wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, according to polling and interviews with campaigns, operatives and rank-and-file voters across the early primary states.

But many of those perceptions and theories — Joe Biden can win back the Rust Belt! Isn’t Elizabeth Warren a bit like Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders can win West Virginia! — are based on flimsy evidence. And unlike the simple question of whom voters like the most, the question of electability involves evaluating what other people might like. And that’s something voters — and even political operatives — aren’t great at.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump and his campaign manager during the last months of the 2016 contest, spoke at our University of Virginia Center for Politics’ American Democracy Conference after Trump’s victory. She questioned the ability of campaign operatives and observers to truly figure out who is electable and who is not: “What happens early in the process is, people say ‘So and so’s electable — he can win.’ And you very patiently should ask, ‘OK great, how do you know that?’ ‘Well, a hundred other people just said it on TV, it must be true,’” she said.

Certainly Trump’s victory is a great argument against the idea that so-called electability can be discerned in advance. For much of the campaign cycle it didn’t seem like Trump was capable of winning, but then he did. This was a vindication for Conway, obviously, but also for many conservatives who believed in the wake of John McCain and Mitt Romney’s losses to Barack Obama that the rank and file had bowed to party leaders concerned about “electability” and nominated candidates many GOP base voters didn’t like only to see them lose anyway. As Laura Reston of the New Republic put it in a 2016 piece from the late stages of the GOP primary about Ted Cruz and John Kasich arguing they were more electable than Trump, “The way rank-and-file conservatives see it, the party acceded to its most ‘electable’ candidates in the last two cycles… For many, if not most, Republicans, ‘electability’ has come to look like a way to both compromise the party’s principles and lose general elections.”

There are some problems with this argument from conservatives. Politics is often about timing, and the political conditions in 2016 for Trump (an open-seat election coming off two terms of a Democratic president with relatively mediocre approval ratings) were better than those for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. The former had to deal with the weight of George W. Bush’s unpopular presidency and the latter faced the unenviable task of running against an incumbent president. Obama, it now seems very fair to say, was also a superior campaigner than Hillary Clinton and had better favorability numbers.

One could argue that because of extenuating circumstances, McCain and Romney, who lost, were more “electable” than Trump, who won, but on its face it’s kind of a silly argument because of what actually happened. Yes, perhaps Romney and McCain both would have won in 2016, and Trump would have lost in both 2008 and 2012. But ultimately, how can one say for sure?

Other recent presidents have overcome electability concerns. As noted above, the question of Clinton’s ability to win in 1992 was such an issue that one of his competitors, then-former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown, was asked to opine on it during a debate. Clinton had dealt with a litany of controversies, including his rampant womanizing and questions about whether he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam war. Clinton, though consistently dogged by scandal, went on to win two terms in the White House.

One of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, Mark Penn, wrote a memo in the early stages of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary that included an observation that her chief rival, Obama, was “unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun.” Whether any African American could win a general election was a theme that hovered over 2008.

As late as March 1980, former President Gerald Ford was saying this of his 1976 primary rival, Ronald Reagan, as part of the same interview cited above: “Every place I go and everything I hear, there is the growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win this election.” Ford, who at that time was still considering running again, watched as Reagan won the nomination and the presidency, re-orienting American politics toward the very same conservatism that Ford (and many others) saw as electorally unviable.

The bottom line here is that there are a lot of candidates who seem unelectable until, that is, they are actually elected.

Polls almost universally show Joe Biden running better against Donald Trump in a hypothetical 2020 matchup than his rivals for the Democratic nomination. Similar polls during 2015 after Donald Trump took the lead in the GOP primary generally showed him performing poorly against Hillary Clinton compared to other Republican contenders.

Does that mean that any GOP nominee was destined to win in 2016 against Clinton? Perhaps. But then one looks at the granular election results, and the immense improvements Trump made on recent Republican performances in the electorally vital rural areas and small cities of Big Ten Country. It is reasonable to wonder: Could Jeb Bush have done that? Or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio? Perhaps so, but perhaps not.

But maybe those other Republicans wouldn’t have hemorrhaged as much support in some affluent suburban areas in those same states, and they could have won in a different, more traditional way. We can assemble data to suggest that from polling and extrapolating from down-ballot performances by more traditional Republicans in 2016, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. Elections are not simulations one can run over and over again to test the performance of different candidates. They are one-time propositions with “what ifs” we can only speculate about using imperfect measures, like opinion polls conducted months or even years in advance of a general election that test different possibilities of candidates.

Following 2012, a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee laid out a roadmap back to national power that, among other things, emphasized the need for comprehensive immigration reform and better outreach to minorities. One couldn’t have designed in a lab a candidate who flew more in the face of that roadmap than Trump, who has demagogued immigrants, loudly insisted on building a wall along the southern border with Mexico, and broke into national GOP politics by suggesting, without proof, that the nation’s first nonwhite president wasn’t really a natural-born American. By the Republican Party’s own reckoning, Trump wasn’t electable in 2016, which helps explain why party leadership was so hostile to his candidacy (that leadership is much more supportive of Trump and his renomination now).

It would be tempting for Democrats to look at Trump and argue that if Trump could fly in the face of conventional wisdom and run hard to the right and still win, then they could beat him by doing the same thing themselves and running to the left.

That may end up being the case, but there are a few factors Democrats should consider before coming to that conclusion. For one thing, self-identified conservatives still outnumber liberals in the general public. It may be that the general electorate would be more open to a far-right candidate than a far-left one because of the nation’s ideological orientation.

Additionally, the reality of Trump’s 2016 candidacy may be more complicated than just saying he was and is a far-right conservative.

Certainly on immigration he is. But Trump also subverted usual GOP messaging on other issues. Even though he did not actually oppose the Iraq war when it started in 2003, he pitched himself in 2016 as an opponent of that war and was highly critical of Bush administration foreign policy. He also sounded like a labor-oriented Democrat on trade issues, assailing recent trade agreements. While Trump was and is a right-wing conservative on certain issues, such as immigration and other issues of patriotism and national identity (such as his loud denunciations of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem), but in other respects he positioned himself as a critic of Republican foreign policy and trade policy. His was a hybrid candidacy. Perhaps that helps explain why Trump performed so strongly among the segment of the population who, in response to a battery of questions from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, placed themselves in the economically moderate or liberal but culturally conservative “populist” portion of the electorate (we wrote about this in some depth in the Crystal Ball back in 2017).

Logically, the most “electable” Democrat would be able to claw back some Trump voters who reside in that populist ideological portion of the electorate. We already mentioned Biden’s strength in general election polls against Trump compared to other Democrats, although we don’t think such polls are all that predictive at this point. Still, a polling edge combined with Biden’s support from the more moderate elements of the Democratic Party and his coolness to some of the more progressive policy proposals that have been discussed during the Democratic primary so far, like Medicare for all, might lead one to believe Biden is the most electable.

That said, Bernie Sanders is already going after Biden for his votes to authorize the Iraq war and in support of NAFTA. Couldn’t Trump do the same, effectively getting to the left of Biden on international issues and holding his populist support in the key heartland states as a result?

From that standpoint, maybe Sanders actually would be the more electable candidate; in addition to his votes against NAFTA and the Iraq war, Sanders’ political arguments are couched more on class than on race, which has sometimes gotten him into trouble with nonwhite activists who want the Democratic nominee to focus more on racial injustice and issues of white privilege. But isn’t it possible that de-emphasizing racial disparities in favor of emphasizing more color-blind class distinctions is a more electorally plausible path to winning back some white working-class voters?

At the same time, could it also be possible that a Democrat who did emphasize racial justice issues could generate better turnout among nonwhite voters, thus improving on Clinton’s margins enough in big, diverse, and electorally important cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia to overcome Trump’s huge margins in the countrysides of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania? Alternately, could such a Democratic candidate reshape the electoral map altogether by competing better in the diverse, growing Sun Belt than the whiter Midwest?

Different people will evaluate these different “electability” arguments in different ways. Our only point is to say that the uncertainty associated with each, and many other such arguments that will emerge, demonstrates how tricky assessing who is likeliest to win actually is.