It’s a bit early in the presidential nominating process for “electability” arguments to become prominent. Voters are just now hearing candidates’ messages, which do not typically revolve around the ability to win a general election (though that may be a component in the message). Some of the more ideological voters may sense that caring more about electability than about core values or policy goals is unprincipled. But in polarized times like our own, the closer we get to the final choice of presidential standard-bearers, the more we’ll hear discussions of their strengths and weaknesses as general-election candidates.
Interestingly enough, entrance polls from Iowa and exit polls from New Hampshire show almost identical percentages of Democratic and Republican participants saying “Can win in November” is the top candidate quality they are looking for (as compared to perceptions of candidates’ empathy, honesty, and experience). But how these premature general-election worrywarts distribute their support differs considerably.
Among the 21 percent of Iowa Republicans placing a premium on electability, 44 percent caucused for Marco Rubio, 24 percent for Donald Trump, and 22 percent for Ted Cruz. As it happens, all three of these candidates stand for different theories of how a general-election campaign would be waged.
But among the 20 percent of Iowa Democrats prioritizing electability, 77 percent caucused for Hillary Clinton and only 17 percent for Bernie Sanders.
In New Hampshire, 12 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats ranked electability first among candidate characteristics.
Again, the Republicans so inclined were scattered, with 33 percent voting for Trump, 29 percent for Rubio (far above his overall percentage), and 16 percent for Kasich (New Hampshire Republicans were not, it appears, as impressed with Cruz’s “54 million missing evangelicals” electability argument, since only 6 percent of electability-first voters went in his direction).
But again, electability-first Democrats went 79-20 for Clinton.
Now it’s possible there’s some extrinsic reason for this finding other than Clinton having a superior perception of electability; maybe voters already inclined to vote for her simply find it easier to call her electable rather than “honest and trustworthy,” another choice. It’s more likely, though, that voters simply figure this well-known candidate running for president a second time is a better bet than a septuagenarian democratic socialist with a hybrid Brooklyn/Vermont accent and a strident tone. There’s really no reliable evidence for that; Sanders does as well as or better than Clinton in early general-election trial heats, but even if he didn’t, such polls aren’t terribly useful given the inclusion of many voters who aren’t yet paying attention to politics at all.
Later in the process, however, electability will begin to matter a lot to Democrats, especially if Republicans seem poised to nominate Rubio, who creates troubling generational comparisons to both Clinton and Sanders, or Donald Trump, whose character and conduct could create many millions of swing voters.
As I noted when listening to her in Iowa, Clinton does spend a good amount of time warning Democrats of the long-term damage Republicans could do if they controlled both Congress and the White House in 2017. That certainly gets people thinking about electability, and also thinking about liberal policies that need to be defended as opposed to less-immediate goals like amending the Constitution to ban unlimited corporate-campaign spending or building a majority to impose a single-payer health-care system on a balky Congress.
In any event, Clinton would be smart to explore these themes more often, and see what happens. It’s one thing to accuse Sanders of promoting “pie in the sky” policy ideas. It’s another altogether to describe him as a high-risk candidate who’ll invite catastrophe if he loses and won’t accomplish much if he wins. And Sanders would be smart to spend more time talking about the unconventional alliances he put together in and out of office in Vermont. Electability will eventually matter a lot.