The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of Electability

Once upon a time, about, oh, ten months ago, the political class was dead certain of two things: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were pretty close to unelectable. Hillary’s case was the more obvious of the two. Although she was clearly the Democratic front-runner, political pros doubted whether such a polarizing politician, one who was viewed unfavorably by nearly half of all Americans surveyed, could convince Democratic primary voters that she gave their party the best shot to win back the White House. As the Washington Post editorialized on the occasion of her formal entry into the race, “The question about Hillary Clinton may be not so much whether a woman can win the presidency but whether this woman can.”

Rudy faced similar questions. It was widely assumed that his moderate views on abortion and guns would help him in a general election. But students of political history—and New York political history in particular—were dubious about how his act would play in Poughkeepsie, much less Peoria. After all, it’s an iron rule of politics that the New York City’s mayor’s office is a “tomb for the politically ambitious,” which is why even popular mayors (La Guardia) and presidential-looking mayors (Lindsay) never managed to ascend to higher office. And while many Americans may consider Giuliani “America’s Mayor” because of his 9/11 performance, New Yorkers had lived under the real, pre-9/11 Rudy—and had no doubt that over the course of a long campaign, the rest of America would come to know that Rudy, too. As an article in National Review Online put it, Giuliani “will probably suffer in a general election campaign from the fact that there is so much evidence in the public record that he is a total jerk.”

So it must have come as something of a shock to the political professionals to pick up the New York Times in mid-November and find a front-page story about a couple of polls of Iowa and New Hampshire voters. Headlined “Polls Find Voters Weighing Issues vs. Electability,” the article reaffirmed the conventional wisdom that electability will heavily influence primary and caucus voters. But the shock came when these voters considered who is the most electable: 47 percent of Iowa Democrats and 68 percent of New Hampshire Democrats named Clinton, and a plurality of Republicans in both states gave the nod to Giuliani. In less than a year, the two candidates had managed to turn what was thought to be their Achilles’ heel into one of their greatest strengths.

Which just goes to show how squishy and even bankrupt “electability” is as a political concept. Unlike political judgments that are based on concrete assessments of, say, a candidate’s record or even something as grubby as his fund-raising prowess, those that are based on a candidate’s supposed electability can change on a moment’s notice. And then change again. Electability is completely ephemeral. Even those hoary and maddeningly indefinable political qualities like “character” and “authenticity” have more meat on their bones.

And that’s probably why those candidates who resort to playing the electability card are, more often than not, losers. According to Merriam-Webster’s, the term electable has been with us since 1879, but it really wasn’t until late last century that candidates started adding electability arguments to their political arsenals. They usually haven’t worked. Adlai Stevenson and his allies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, tried to no avail to use electability against John Kennedy in 1960, claiming that his Catholicism would keep him from winning the general election. In 1984, Gary Hart based much of his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination on the contention that Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee, couldn’t beat Ronald Reagan in November. (That Hart turned out to be right was cold comfort for him.) Four years later, Bob Dole argued that George Bush wasn’t electable, and four years after that, Bob Kerrey said the same about Bill Clinton. (Kerrey was much more colorful than Dole, predicting that Clinton was “going to be opened up like a soft peanut” by Bush.)

The reductio ad absurdum of electability arguments may have come last month, when John McCain’s campaign sent out an e-mail blast titled “Good Polling News” hyping a national poll by Fox News that, in the McCain campaign’s estimation, showed that “John McCain is the Republican candidate best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton”—because in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Clinton, McCain outperformed Giuliani by one percentage point. Alas, there was an inconvenient truth about the poll: It showed McCain and Rudy both losing to Clinton, by three and four points, respectively. In other words, the McCain team’s electability argument boiled down to this lame claim: Our guy will lose by less!

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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?”

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Political scientists, for their part, have taken a stab at gauging electability. At conferences and in journal articles, these academics have tried to suss out just what makes a candidate electable—or, at the very least, what makes voters perceive a candidate as electable. Physically attractive male candidates, one group of political scientists concluded, enjoy an electability advantage, but the same group could find no straightforward link between attractiveness and electability for female candidates. Similarly, some political scientists found that male politicians with hair tend to get elected more than balding ones. (There doesn’t appear to be any research on the electability of balding female candidates.) And in 1994, two professors from William & Mary and the University of Colorado went so far as to come up with an actual electability formula, which looks like this:

Candidate electability = a + b1 (party) + b2 (evaluation of C) + b3 (C’s proximity to R) + b4 (C’s proximity to the average voter) + b5 (C’s proximity to party) + b6 (C’s nomination chances) + b7 (C’s TV performance) + e

Political professionals, however, take a more straightforward approach: They gauge electability by looking at public-opinion polls. Of course, polls can be twisted in certain ways—and no one’s done more twisting to his advantage than Giuliani.

On one level, the argument for Giuliani’s electability is simple logic. The political environment right now couldn’t be worse for Republicans: A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a generic Democratic presidential candidate trounces a generic Republican presidential candidate 50 to 35 percent. So it stands to reason that an unconventional Republican like Giuliani—with his liberal-to-moderate views on social issues and his New York City address—is more electable than a conventional one like Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, or McCain circa 2008. (McCain circa 2000 would have been a different story.) What’s more, Giuliani’s less-appealing, unconventional features—namely his messy personal life—probably wouldn’t prove too great a liability in a general election. While an October New York Times/CBS News poll found that two thirds of Republicans believe that presidential candidates should be judged on both their political records and their personal lives, those same Republicans would have presumably made their peace with Giuliani if they’d chosen him as their party’s nominee. Meanwhile, the same poll found that only half of Democrats and independents—the very voters Giuliani would be making a play for in November—think that a presidential candidate’s personal life matters. Rudy’s religion wouldn’t hurt him, either: Numerous public-opinion surveys show that more than 90 percent of Americans would have no trouble voting for a Catholic. (Mitt Romney’s religion, however, may be another story: A recent Newsweek poll found that 28 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.)

The former GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has been conducting postdebate focus groups for Fox News, describes Giuliani’s electability as a simple matter of personality: “Rudy exudes electability,” he says. “He exudes confidence to a Republican Party scared to death of losing to Hillary Clinton.”

The Giuliani campaign, for its part, has seized on electability and attempted to run with it well past the point of reason. In October, Giuliani’s “strategy director,” Brent Seaborn, produced one of those ever-popular “electability” memos, which came out at the same time a map was leaked from the campaign showing that in a general-election matchup with Clinton, Rudy would win, or strongly contend in, a whopping 48 states—with the only states “safe” for Clinton being the pinko playgrounds of Massachusetts and Vermont. Even if Rudy doesn’t come close to pulling a Nixon and winning in 49 states, Seaborn argued, merely being competitive in them would prove beneficial: “Hillary Clinton will be forced to advertise in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—the three most expensive media markets in the country, something Democrats haven’t had to do in twenty years. This will effectively take Florida off of the Democrats’ target map—making it a safe Republican state in 2008 if Mayor Giuliani is the nominee. If another Republican is the nominee, traditional blue states will be safe, meaning the Democrats can plow all their resources into Ohio and Florida.”

Unfortunately for Giuliani, Seaborn’s electoral map is so optimistic it’s delusional. Outside Rudyworld, it’s hard to find anyone who believes that states like California, Washington, and Maryland—all deemed toss-ups by Seaborn in a Giuliani-versus-Clinton matchup—won’t go to the Democratic candidate by wide margins in 2008. Indeed, even some inhabitants of Rudyworld implicitly acknowledge as much: Would so many Giuliani supporters be backing a California ballot initiative that seeks to apportion the state’s electoral votes by congressional district instead of by the usual winner-take-all method if they thought their guy actually had a shot at winning there? In fact, in a SurveyUSA poll from October, Hillary’s thumping Rudy in California 55 to 39. L.A. TV stations better not count on Hillary’s advertising to fill their coffers come next fall. The same goes for TV stations on Rudy’s—and Hillary’s—home turf. Although Seaborn says New York would be in play in a Rudy-versus-Hillary contest, the polls disagree: According to an October poll from Quinnipiac University, Hillary beats Rudy 52 to 41 in their home state. Indeed, the greatest chink in Rudy’s electability armor is another October poll, this one by ABC News and the Washington Post, which showed Hillary leading Rudy 51 to 43 in a nationwide contest. Even worse for Rudy’s electability prospects, the same poll found that while 41 percent of Americans would never vote for Hillary, 44 percent would decline to vote for Giuliani. Although a November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Giuliani pulling to within one point against Clinton—losing 45 to 46—that hardly makes him a slam dunk.

There’s also the potential complication of a pro-life candidate, or a certain billionaire from New York, running on a third-party ticket should Giuliani get the Republican nomination. With a pro-life candidate in the race, according to an October Rasmussen poll, Rudy would get only 30 percent of the vote, with 14 percent going to the third-party conservative and 46 percent going to Hillary.

Then again, regardless of any third-party candidate, 54 percent of people surveyed in the recent ABC News/Washington Post poll said they’d never vote for Fred Thompson, and 57 percent put the kibosh on ever voting for Romney. So, relatively speaking, maybe there is something to Giuliani’s electability argument.

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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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Similarly, some polls find that people come up with other reasons for why they or their friends won’t vote for Obama—reasons that could be proxies for race. For instance, a CBS News poll in August found that 38 percent of voters believe Obama’s name (and its unfortunate resonance with the world’s most famous terrorist) could prevent people from voting for him. And Obama’s claim that his race will actually benefit him in the South is far-fetched—in 2004, for instance, African-Americans made up 34 percent of the voters in Mississippi—just a smidgen under their 37 percent share of the state’s population—and Kerry still lost there by twenty points.

While Obama says being black will help him in the South, John Edwards argues that being southern will help him everywhere. As he mused in an interview with Time this summer, “It’s simple geography. Ask Middle Americans: You’ve got three Democratic candidates. One’s from New York, one’s from Chicago, and one’s from rural North Carolina. Who do you think is most like you?” Which, Edwards claims, gives him a certain amount of ideological wiggle room, as he explained in the same interview: “I think most journalists would agree that I’m the most progressive, Senator Obama next, and Senator Clinton closest to the center. But I’d be willing to bet that if you ask most Americans the same question, they’d reverse it.”

And there is some polling data to back up Edwards’s claim. A November survey by Rasmussen Reports found that while 51 percent of voters perceive Clinton as liberal and 44 percent view Obama this way, only 38 percent attach the L-word to Edwards. What’s more, 13 percent actually view Edwards as conservative, with only 9 percent using that term to describe Clinton and 6 for Obama. These perceptions, the Edwards campaign argues, make him a more formidable candidate than Clinton or Obama in swing states and among downscale voters—and thus make him more electable. “If you look at the people who used to vote Democrat but no longer vote Democrat, John Edwards does particularly well,” says Edwards’s pollster, Harrison Hickman. “He does well with working-class people, and that gives him an advantage in states with large numbers of what used to be called Reagan Democrats—states like Ohio.”

But Edwards’s advantage in, say, Ohio isn’t that clear-cut— at least not where it matters most. While SurveyUSA in September found him winning the state by twenty points in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Romney, he lost in a head-to-head matchup with Giuliani by one point. Which, the same poll found, is the same lead Rudy enjoys over Hillary in the state. In other words, when it comes to taking on the Republican front-runner in a key battleground state, Edwards does no better than the candidate Edwards hopes to bring down with his electability argument.

And then there is Hillary. As the front-runner, she’s less inclined than her competitors to make many explicit claims about electability. Just a couple of months ago, her husband dismissed “this electability thing” as a “canard [that] doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” But since her electability has become the fundamental question of the 2008 race, it has to be examined. And, surprisingly, the case for Hillary’s electability turns out to be pretty strong.

First, her gender doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment—and may even be an advantage. Although the number of Americans who said they had no reservations about voting for a female presidential candidate dipped in the year after the 9/11 attacks—from about 95 percent to 65 percent—it has returned to close to its previous level, with a February USA Today/Gallup poll finding 88 percent of Americans willing to put a woman in the White House. And support for Hillary among women is quite strong. While a Gallup analysis of polling data between 2005 and 2007 found that men were almost evenly divided in their opinion of Hillary—with 49 percent rating her unfavorably and 47 percent rating her favorably—women were far more positive about her: 59 percent rated Hillary favorably and only 36 percent unfavorably. That gender gap could prove decisive for Clinton. As Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, notes, “Women were 54 percent of voters in the last election. It wouldn’t be the question of electing a minority but a majority.”

Second, even Hillary’s high unfavorability numbers may not serve as that much of an impediment in a general election. For one thing, in today’s polarized political environment, high unfavorables are the likely fate for either party’s nominee: Hillary, by dint of the fact that she’s been in the national spotlight for fifteen years and has been subjected to political attacks for just as long, merely has a head start on the other Democratic candidates in terms of amassing those unfavorables. “She starts out where any other nominee is going to get,” says a Democratic pollster. “Anyone who gets the nomination is going to be the same kind of lightning rod.”

What’s more, high unfavorable ratings in January aren’t necessarily the kiss of death in November. According to a recent analysis from Gallup, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush started out their presidential campaigns with high unfavorable ratings: Clinton had a 49 percent unfavorable rating at the outset of 1992, and Bush was at 47 percent unfavorable at the start of the ’04 campaign. Approval ratings tend to change over the course of a campaign, and Hillary’s probably will, too. Although it’s conventional wisdom that everyone has already made up their minds about the junior senator from New York, her favorable/unfavorable ratings over the past fifteen years have fluctuated. And while it’s true that a candidate’s negatives tend to go up over the course of a presidential campaign, Gallup argues that might not apply to Hillary, since she’s already so well known. “Typically, a winning presidential candidate’s favorable rating is only slightly more positive than negative on the eve of the election,” Gallup concludes. “Clinton would only need to boost her positives a few points to achieve that position.”

How Gallup and Penn—and Edwards and Obama, for that matter—assess Clinton’s electability is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is how Democratic caucusgoers and primary voters view it, since a good number of them will likely take that view into account when deciding which candidate to support. And on this metric, Hillary is in very good shape. We already know about Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they’re not the only ones who are deeming Hillary electable. While an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 39 percent of Democrats saying Hillary was the most electable candidate (compared with 32 percent who picked Obama and 22 percent who picked Edwards), another NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in September found that the percentage of Democrats who viewed Hillary as the Democrats’ best bet in November had jumped to 54 percent (with Obama dropping to 18 percent and Edwards to 15 percent). Over the course of those same five months, Hillary nearly doubled her lead over Edwards and quadrupled her lead over Obama.

So how did Hillary do it? How, in less than a year, did she go from unelectable albatross—in the eyes of Democratic voters, at least—to their party’s best bet to take back the White House? Part of the answer has to do with the difference between the idea and the reality of Hillary. In the abstract, or in the cross-tabs of a polling report, she can appear to be the cold, calculating, evasive, polarizing figure her critics have long painted her to be. But in the flesh, on the stump in Iowa and New Hampshire and onstage at the debates with her vast herd of rivals, she has shown herself to be a commanding and formidable politician. More than that, she’s been ahead the whole time, and that, by itself, has boosted the perception of her electability. There’s a snowballing effect, or what an economist might call a “cumulative advantage,” which simply means the bigger you are, the bigger you get, like a Hollywood blockbuster or a chain of office-supply stores. Hillary’s the dominant Democratic Party brand at the moment. But it’s far from an invincible position. If her electability advantage is little more than a reflection of her place in the polls, then it could disappear as quickly as her leads over Obama and Edwards in Iowa and New Hampshire have been shrinking. A single upset, and Hillary’s electability problem comes roaring right back.

The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of […]