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The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of Electability

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But electability could turn out to be irrelevant on the GOP side. Having had the White House for the last eight years, Republicans may not be so fixated on winning in November that they’re willing to compromise their principles in the primaries. The same, of course, can’t be said of Democrats. If nearly 40 percent of Democrats chose their nominee on electability grounds in 2004, after only four years of Bush in the White House, imagine how they’ll be feeling after eight. “We’ve been on the outs for so long and have been nominating losers,” says a Democratic consultant. “Democrats feel like we really need to win this thing this time around.” Which is why so many Democratic candidates are making the electability argument so explicitly in the current campaign.

The most novel electability claim undoubtedly comes from the Biden and Dodd camps. Call it the blandness argument. Pointing to the polling that shows a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican, Biden and Dodd supporters argue that their guys—both white, sixtysomething men who have been marinating on Capitol Hill for the past few decades—are in fact that generic Democrat. “There’s a terrific wind at the backs of Democrats,” says one Democratic consultant, “but we may be rushing toward nominating the one person, Hillary Clinton, who could turn a political tsunami into a nail-biter … With these kind of tailwinds, we’d almost be sure to win if we nominated a hyperconventional candidate, so you can make a strong electability case for Biden or Dodd.” Alas, Biden and Dodd’s electability argument is ultimately undermined by their present circumstances. Mired in single-digit-land at this fairly late date, these candidates have virtually no shot of ending up in the general election anyway.

Pollster Frank Luntz describes Giuliani’s electability as a simple matter of personality. “Rudy exudes electability. He exudes confidence to a Republican Party scared to death of losing to Hillary Clinton.”

Barack Obama’s electability argument is seemingly stronger. He has good favorability/unfavorability numbers, with a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finding a 43/24 split (in striking contrast to Hillary, whose favorable/unfavorable numbers were 43/44). What’s more, Republicans and independents—especially those with advanced degrees—have a generally favorable opinion of him, according to an August analysis by Gallup. Nor does Obama’s race appear to be a disadvantage in electability terms—and, according to Obama, it is actually a plus. Most public-opinion polls find that more than 90 percent of Americans say they would cast a presidential vote for a well-qualified candidate who happened to be African-American. And in August, Obama boasted (in New Hampshire, of all places) about how his support among African-Americans would “redraw the political map,” saying that if the turnout of African-Americans relative to whites matched their percentage of the population in Mississippi and Georgia, those would become Democratic states, and that if African-Americans did the same in South Carolina, it would suddenly be in play.

But there are some definite chinks in Obama’s electability armor. For one thing, his favorability ratings don’t necessarily translate into votes. As GQ reported this summer, Obama’s own pollsters have discovered that less than half of those who say they like the candidate actually say they’d vote for him; by contrast, about two thirds of those who say they like Hillary say they’d vote for her.

The fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they’d vote for a black presidential candidate isn’t insignificant—especially when you consider that in 1963, only 48 percent of Americans said they would do so. But some pollsters think these sorts of generic questions about race—and gender, for that matter—are unreliable. A strategist affiliated with one Democratic campaign says that in focus groups, Obama’s race does sometimes have a negative impact on assessments of the candidate. “People say, ‘I’d have no problem voting for him, but I worry about whether my neighbor will,’ ” says the strategist. And when public-opinion polls ask voters not whether they’d vote for a qualified African-American presidential candidate but whether they think “voters of this country are ready” to elect a black president, as a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put it, the numbers go down—to 63 percent, in that example.


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