The most electable candidate is the one you support (unless it’s Bernie)

Good stuff from Jonathan Bernstein a few weeks ago that I had missed:

What do Democrats say in poll after poll that they want in a 2020 presidential candidate? Someone who can beat Donald Trump. In the abstract, that makes plenty of sense. The only problems? No one really knows what voters will do in the primaries.

And there’s simply no good way to know which candidate will do best in the general election.

At this point, don’t put much faith in head-to-head trial heats against Trump. Those really just reflect name recognition. That’s why Joe Biden consistently does well, and candidates like Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren typically don’t appear as strong. People don’t like to vote for politicians they haven’t heard of, and a lot of voters either have never heard of, or know little about, most of the roughly two dozen Democrats running for president. Granted, a very unpopular but well-known candidate wouldn’t poll well, so the polls aren’t entirely meaningless. But there’s just no way to project them forward.

The findings from political science on electability are sparse. Most of the research is about ideology, and generally most political scientists would say that a candidate perceived as a moderate would, all things equal, do better than one perceived as an extremist. And while it’s safe to guess that Trump is going to call any Democratic opponent a socialist, it’s reasonable to assume that the one candidate who actually calls himself a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, is more likely to be thought of as one. To be fair, there’s at least some evidence that extremism may not hurt general election candidates…

Without clear guideposts, people are likely to decide that the candidate they like for other reasons — policies or personality or governing record or demographics — is probably also the one apt to do best against Trump. In other words, voters and party actors acting as pundits are likely to fall into a version of the pundit’s fallacy: The tendency to conclude that whatever they like is also what’s really popular. To some extent, we’ve already seen this in the polling: As Warren has moved up in horse race polling for the nomination, voters have also started to see her as more electable (and before that, Harris, as Aaron Blake of The Washington Post points out, “got a polling bounce and an electability bounce” after a well-received debate performance).

None of this is to say that Democrats are foolish to say they mainly want a candidate who will beat Trump. It’s just that electability is likely to generate a lot more talk than action.

Short version… what we know suggests the Bernie may be less electable than other candidates, but even then, we just really don’t know all that much about electability.  Just support the candidate you want to be president.  That’s it.  Honestly, when Donald Trump is elected president, what do we know about electability.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The most electable candidate is the one you support (unless it’s Bernie)

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    OK – I support Elizabeth Warren. Her virtues: plans, passion, persistence. I just shake my head in disbelief when critics say she doesn’t connect with people. She has spent a big part of a productive life working to protect average Americans from the financial predators of our corporate economy. Now her plans cover much more than that. I will vote for her in the primary.
    I will vote for the Democratic nominee in the election.

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