My mail ballot for the March 3 California primary (combining presidential and state and local offices) arrived the day before the New Hampshire primary. I put it aside, knowing that I could return it in person or with a postmark dated as late as primary day. Assuming I vote in the Democratic presidential contest, my choice of candidates could change several times over by then. Not because I’m wishy-washy or filtering through fresh information on the policies and sterling personal qualities of the candidates, but because the dynamics of the Democratic competition are constantly changing. Do I want to “throw away” a vote on a candidate who is no longer viable at the risk of helping a candidate I actively disfavor? Of course not.
Like me, millions of other voters will be casting ballots in the 15 jurisdictions with primaries being held during the next week. Many of them are famously obsessed with assessing candidate “electability,” the likelihood that this or that Democrat can beat Donald Trump. But now an additional factor is in play: call it “nominatability.” In a contest wherein eight candidates are still actively in the race, casting one’s ballot strategically is quite important.
If your candidate is Bernie Sanders, you don’t really have that problem at present. As the front-runner, his path to the nomination is sure and straight, though his strategy and tactics may vary based on the nature of his remaining competition as the weeks go by.
But let’s say you are a “centrist Democrat” voting in South Carolina this coming weekend, who for one reason or another isn’t sold on Bernie. And let’s stipulate you are a Buttigieg fan. He’s not likely to win in South Carolina (he’s running fifth in the RealClearPolitics polling averages), and his long-term path to the nomination is very rocky unless he suddenly and miraculously finds a way to appeal to minority voters. So do you vote for your more viable second-choice favorite? Or do you vote for whoever has the best chance to defeat your least favorite candidate? It’s tricky.
If you were a participant in caucuses like Iowa and Nevada’s, you could let your freak flag fly for whatever improbable candidate you preferred, and then, if she or he turned out not to have enough support to surpass a “viability threshold,” you could “realign” for a more practicable option. But moving forward, unless you live in Wyoming, you’re going to be voting in a primary, so strategic voters must now factor in “nominatability” along with other considerations.
Obviously a lot of voters don’t think this way, and will vote for the candidate they like best based on relatively limited information — maybe just vague images based on TV ads or debate performances (my late maternal grandmother voted against Richard Nixon three times because she didn’t like his nose). But the possibility of more strategically inclined voting makes this treacherous stretch of the nominating contest even harder than ever to handicap, particularly when you try to factor in the highly variable timing of early voting. I have a lot of California friends who have already voted in the presidential primary. Who was up, and who was down and out, the day they filled out that ballot? There’s no telling.