Leading up to the 2018 election I was a member of a committee tasked with recommending candidates for endorsement. We worried about how to factor “electability” into our deliberations. Indeed, there was discussion about even whether to do so. The same concern is now playing out on the national stage. Should we consider electability as we individually and collectively weigh the chances of the 20-odd Democratic candidates for president? So this “bullet point” from Nate Silver at 538.com caught my attention. He asks Is Electability A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
I’d describe myself as “anti-anti-electability.” Electability is a problematic concept in several respects, and it can serve as an invitation to promote white men over women and minorities even though it’s not really clear that white men have any sort of electoral advantage. Nonetheless, Democrats care a lot about who can beat President Trump. If, hypothetically, one candidate had a 70 percent chance of beating Trump and another one had a 40 percent chance, both voters and the media would be right to give that lots of consideration.
The problem is there’s no way to estimate electability that precisely. There’s some empirical basis for some claims about electability, such as that more moderate candidates are more electable, but even those are fuzzy.
And at times, concerns about electability can be self-fulfilling prophecies. A recent Avalanche Strategy poll found Joe Biden in the lead, but when voters were asked to “imagine that they have a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president,” Elizabeth Warren narrowly became the top choice …
Being a woman was the biggest barrier to electability, based on Avalanche’s analysis of the results, and women were more likely to cite gender as a factor than men. So there are a lot of women who might not vote for a woman because they’re worried that other voters won’t vote for her. But if everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!
Obviously, I’m oversimplifying. Voters could avoid a woman in the primary because they’re worried about her chances in a general election. Still, it’s important to keep these feedback loops in mind. If voters start to see other voters supporting Warren (in polls and eventually in primaries), their concerns about her electability may lessen.