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The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of Electability

It’s enough to give electability a bad name among some political pros. “When someone walks into the room and says we’re twenty points behind but we’re the most electable, you know they don’t have much to rest their argument on,” says the Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “It’s the last resort of people who think they have no chance.”

And yet, despite such a sorry track record, the electability argument had a shining moment of sorts in the 2004 presidential race, when John Kerry rode it to the Democratic nomination. Granted, Kerry never made the electability argument in explicit terms. But in the weeks and months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the Kerry campaign worked to plant seeds of doubt in Democrats’ minds as to whether the then front-runner, Howard Dean, had what it took to beat President Bush. At the same time, Kerry talked up his foreign-policy credentials and his Vietnam service in the hope of convincing Democrats that he could, as his campaign manager Bob Shrum recounts in his memoir No Excuses, “go toe-to-toe with Bush” on what were seen as Bush’s strengths. The strategy worked as Kerry scored an upset victory over Dean in Iowa. “There were a lot of people out there who really liked Governor Dean’s message of standing up to the Republicans and President Bush and his strong antiwar stance,” recalls Gordon Fischer, who was the Iowa Democratic Party chairman in 2004, “but they ultimately felt that Senator Kerry was close enough to those principles and was more electable in 2004. They chose their head over their heart.”

That pattern continued in the nomination contests that followed. Where just 7 percent of New Hampshire Democratic-primary voters in a 2000 exit poll chose “best chance to win in November” as the most important reason for their vote, 20 percent of New Hampshire Democrats said “can beat George W. Bush” was the reason for their vote in 2004—which helped put Kerry over the top there. In fact, according to the National Election Pool exit poll, nearly four in ten Democratic-primary voters in 2004 said that having a nominee who could beat Bush was more important than having a nominee with whom they agreed on the issues. While Dean may have been many Democrats’ personal choice, Kerry was their strategic one.

Memories of the “Dated Dean, Married Kerry” phenomenon are probably one reason the ’08 presidential primaries have become an electability bonanza. On the Democratic side, John Edwards and Barack Obama have repeatedly held themselves out as the most electable Democrat; second-tier candidates like Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have made the far-fetched argument that even though they are mired in single digits in the polls, they’d outperform Hillary, Edwards, or Obama in November. And these arguments could turn out to be effective. According to an aide on one Democratic campaign, their internal polling shows that electability has surpassed Iraq as the issue most important to Iowans. Meanwhile, in GOP-land, Rudy Giuliani somewhat improbably sits atop the national polls thanks to a plurality of Republicans who are apparently willing to tolerate his liberal social views and messy personal life because they believe him when he claims that only he can stop Hillary from storming the White House. Indeed, even more than a MySpace page and a health-care plan, the ultimate must-have for ’08 presidential candidates is a memo from their pollster spelling out—in words, numbers, and sometimes color-coded maps—exactly why their guy (or gal) is the best bet to win in November.

But there’s likely more going on than just fond memories of ’04. The current electability fixation probably has as much if not more to do with the politician still leading the ’08 field: Clinton. Despite polls like the Times one from earlier this month, the doubts about Hillary’s electability—at least those harbored by the political class—stubbornly refuse to die. As one Democratic strategist who typically pooh-poohs electability arguments says, “I think this year is different. Something’s going on. I really think electability is more important this cycle than ever before, at least among hyperinformed voters like you have in Iowa or New Hampshire. And that’s because it’s been forced on them. It’s been the story line about Hillary for so much of the race, and voters have framed the race the way it’s been given to them by the press. So much of the question has been, ‘Can she win a general election?’ How could any voter have escaped that that’s a serious question about her? And how could that not affect their own criteria for voting?”